Constructive criticism can be the bane of the workplace environment. It’s hard to give without putting the receiver on the defensive. (It’s also hard to accept.) That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever talk about each other’s performance; to not discuss how we’re doing would make for a stagnant environment in which employees aren’t learning, growing and improving.
But maybe “feedback” doesn’t have to be the same thing as “criticism”. In fact, Marcus Buckingham, head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute, and Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco Systems, write for the Harvard Business Review that the secret to giving effective feedback is to focus entirely on the positive.
Start by remembering that your opinion is just YOUR opinion
You might think someone gave a dynamic presentation; I might think it was over-the-top. What you call “boring”, I might call “thoughtful”. Interpretations of another person’s workplace performance is almost always sheer opinion, a point-of-view coloured by our own expectations, personality and experiences.
Even if measurable outcomes — such as number of sales — show that a person is falling short of expectations, the reasons for the failure may vary, depending on who you ask. Buckingham and Goodall put it this way:
All we can do — and it’s not nothing — is share our own feelings and experiences, our own reactions. Thus we can tell someone whether his voice grates on us; whether he’s persuasive to us; whether his presentation is boring to us. We may not be able to tell him where he stands, but we can tell him where he stands with us. Those are our truths, not his. This is a humbler claim, but at least it’s accurate.
That’s why a lot of criticism isn’t really all that constructive; it’s just your opinion and you’re not necessarily right.
Ditch the negative
Sure, you can do the old “compliment sandwich” if you want. You know, where you give a positive, followed by something that can be improved upon, wrapped up with another positive. We all kind of see through that, though, don’t we? We know that the meat in the middle is really what the conversation is about.
Buckingham and Goodall argue that we get more out of the compliments than we ever could out of the criticism. That we actually learn more when others point out our strengths than when they point out our weaknesses.
In fact, they take it one step further and say that focusing people on their shortcomings actually impairs learning.
Learning happens when we see how we might do something better by adding some new nuance or expansion to our own understanding. Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly. And second, that we learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently. … It’s clear that we learn most in our comfort zones, because that’s where our neural pathways are most concentrated. It’s where we’re most open to possibility, most creative, insightful, and productive. That’s where feedback must meet us—in our moments of flow.
Point out those ‘moments of flow’
We do this with kids. When we catch them using good manners or putting away their toys without us having to ask, we make sure to point it out in the moment and praise them for it.
Praise does more than punishment for improving a kid’s behaviour. They inherently want to do well and please us, so when we recognise when they’re doing a good job with something, they have a way of doing an even better job of it in the future.
Why would it be any different for adults?
When someone at work closes a sale or hits a goal or produces material that is particularly creative or insightful, cheer it on. And go one step beyond just saying “good job”; to help them learn and grow from their success, Buckingham and Goodall suggest talking about your reaction to their good work.
Describe what you experienced when her moment of excellence caught your attention. There’s nothing more believable and more authoritative than sharing what you saw from her and how it made you feel. Use phrases such as “This is how that came across for me,” or “This is what that made me think,” or even just “Did you see what you did there?” Those are your reactions — they are your truth — and when you relay them in specific detail, you aren’t judging or rating or fixing her; you’re simply reflecting to her the unique “dent” she just made in the world, as seen through your eyes.
So instead of telling someone that you thought the energy of their presentation lagged in certain spots, tell them which portions really spoke to you and got your own creativity flowing. Point out the good so that they know what the good looks like from the outside.