What constructive criticism means and what it doesn't

Criticism, even if it is “constructive” can sometimes hurt. If you’ve invested time, effort, and money into doing something, it’s difficult when someone tells you they don’t like it. Nonetheless, constructive criticism can also be a valuable point in the right direction. A reinforcement of the fact that you are moving in the right direction or your path needs a course correction. Let’s look at the definition of constructive criticism as per Merriam Webster Dictionary:

Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one.*

This definition clearly stresses two points that constructive criticism should: negative and positive feedback. A balance between the two is central to the idea of constructive criticism and how it should be delivered. We’ve come up with our list of points that will help you know whether you are giving feedback in a constructive way. So, the next time you give or receive constructive criticism, or “helpful feedback” as it euphemistically called, keep these tips in mind to make it a positive experience for the giver and receiver.

Criticism Should Be Neutral

For criticism to be constructive, it must first be neutral and free from any sort of bias or prejudices. Do not mix personal feelings when critiquing someone’s work. This may have negative consequences on the individual’s morale and might hurt your relationship in the long run. Also, remember to keep your tone neutral and factual. This will let the receiver know that your message is well-intended and meaningful. The receiver should know that you have their best interests at heart and this should be communicated through words and the way you give criticism.

Criticism Should Be Timely

Critiquing someone’s work for something they did a week ago, will hardly have the desired impact today. For constructive criticism to be effective, it must be transmitted on a regular basis and preferably immediately after the act for which the criticism is given. Making criticism a regular practice or inculcating that in your overall work culture will also go a long way in building morale and establishing recognition. One thing to be cognizant of when critiquing someone’s work is to consider the time and place. It’s best to give criticism in private where the individual can really see the merits behind your argument. Keep in mind that constructive criticism is really about bringing about a positive change, and not to humiliate or shame a person.

Criticism Should be Objective

Criticizing for the sake of criticism will have a number of undesirable outcomes. Managers often make the awful mistake of criticizing from a position of power, which is often loaded with ego. This kind of criticism never goes down well and lowers the status of the person doing the critiquing. It’s very important that criticism is objective, which implies that it should focus on facts and be aimed at positively impacting a person. It should have clear and concise suggestions so that the receiver understands where they went wrong and see a need to change their approach. Lastly, a good way to make your criticism objective is to provide real-world examples that the receiver can relate to. Examples are a great way for an individual to see where they specifically went wrong and how they could have done things better.

Criticism Should be Followed by Feedback

By reinforcing positive actions through compliments, an individual feels encouraged to keep doing good work. This type of reinforcement builds self-esteem and gives a positive morale boost to a person to continue their current behavior.

Criticism Should Be Measurable

Research conducted by sage HR* indicates that criticism in the form of measurable goals has a stronger impact than undefined goals. Individuals work towards attaining these goals (long/short term). When achieved, the individual feels a deeper sense of satisfaction at having met these challenges, with a feeling of personal success.

Let’s look at an example to understand this a bit better.

Set a very specific sales target like: “I want to see $2,000 worth of toners sold by Monday 3:00PM”. This way the likelihood of an individual achieving this goal is higher. When compared to critique which is less specific: “I want to see an increase in toner sales by the end of the week”. While the former may take considerably longer, as it requires more research and a better understanding of your sales goals, it will lead to better results for the receiver and the organization as a whole.

Final Thoughts

Criticism is never easy for both the giver and receiver. However, it is an essential part of the learning and growing experience. Criticism that is founded on a real desire for change will motivate individuals and lead to positive results. Armed with the necessary know-how about giving constructive criticism, you can be sure your next feedback session will be a more fruitful one.