There’s no such thing as constructive criticism – or is there?

I had the distinct pleasure last week of attending the Louisiana Society of Association Executives annual convention in New Orleans at the historic Hotel Monteleone. During the opening general session on Thursday morning, speaker Gary Golden shared a number of stories about leadership. One had to do with training killer whales, another about coaching a baseball team and a third about raising a daughter.

In each instance, Gary built upon his theory that performance and gratification are inextricably linked to one another (even though they happen to be two different sides of the same coin). Here, performance is defined as the execution or accomplishment of work and gratification is defined as a state of pleasure or satisfaction. (And, generally, when you’re seeking gratification, there are easier ways to obtain it than performing work.)

As the session progressed, I posted a couple of key takeaways to Facebook and Twitter for future reflection. One such post – There’s no such thing as constructive criticism. #LSAE12 – garnered 19 comments within a matter of minutes, as well as a spin-off discussion yielding 19 more. Several comments from the original post follow:

  • Really? What is an alternative, positive reinforcement?
  • Interesting. How do we point out areas for improvement, ideas to increase performance, etc.? I do agree that the term constructive criticism is not one of my favorites though.
  • The key is not making it a criticism of the *person* but rather pointing out the main goals of the project and how the person can achieve those goals. I am not saying berating people for mistakes is the way to go, but let’s not swing too far in the opposite direction. I find that too many people are so afraid of *any* criticism that they often don’t provide feedback people need to improve. That’s why “Everybody Gets a Ribbon” hurts more than it helps.
  • I always try and lead with a positive. I just caution people not to overemphasize the positive, because it can backfire. Sometimes, when you over praise and don’t emphasize critical areas for improvement, people won’t work so hard to perfect the imperfections. Really, what it comes down to is different personality styles respond to criticism differently.
  • That is an absurd statement. Everyone learns and is motivated in different ways. For some, positive reinforcement is the way to go…personally being praised all the time makes me feel like I am being pandered to. Many people respond to different types of stimulus…such as constructive criticism. I find this to be the case in the workplace, while coaching and in life. The key for an effective manager is figuring out what motivates each employee and utilizing that to help them grow and learn.

Boiled down, these comments argue that:

  1. Although the term “constructive criticism” may be cliché (and somewhat undesirable), the concept is a necessary evil to encourage performance improvement.
  2. Emphasis should always remain on the task or the project, rather than on the individual.
  3. People should be treated disparately in the workplace as everyone responds differently to stimuli such as praise and criticism.

Nevertheless, I believe Gary would stick to his guns and say there are several key steps to getting the most from your employees.

  1. Hire effectively.
  2. Assuming you’ve hired effectively, you have surrounded yourself with competent and talented staff that have the best interests in mind for you and your members/clients. Assign projects based upon skills and expertise.
  3. Each time a project or task is completed (the routine is important), first point out what was done well. And the key here is to do it genuinely. Then offer insights, suggestions and recommendations for performance improvement as the need arises (focusing less on the deficiency and more on the potential for a better future outcome – and perhaps even an improved system, rather than a one-time benefit).
  4. Finally, gratification yields performance excellence (this is true both at work and at home, incidentally). In other words, happy, satisfied, fulfilled people are more likely to produce quality work than those who are unhappy, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. (Conversely, always point out the worst in people – and productivity will plummet).

The bottom line is that criticism – the act of passing judgment; faultfinding – is not the most direct route to motivating employees. To complicate the issue further, we’re much more likely to point out when a project or task fails to meet expectations (learned behavior?) and generally miss the boat altogether when projects or tasks are completed well (by failing to take the time to acknowledge, praise or compliment).

Moreover, I think Gary would say that “constructive criticism” – loosely defined as criticism or advice that is useful and intended to help or improve something, often with an offer of possible solutions – is simply criticism cloaked by good intentions (or the pretense of good intentions). The fact of the matter is that constructive criticism is still criticism and fails to serve as the most effective human motivator.

So, my question to you is this: What do you make of the phrase: “There’s no such thing as constructive criticism”? Do you agree or disagree – and why? How do you respond to the comments posted by my friends and colleagues? How do you respond to my interpretation of Gary’s position on this matter? As an effective manager, what have you found most effective when it comes to employee morale and motivation?

6 Responses to “There’s no such thing as constructive criticism – or is there?”

  1. February 7, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    We may have a tendency to criticize more than praise because we expect everything to be done well (hire effectively?) so we only notice when it isn’t.

    Some people are afraid to criticize anything because they fear conflict and don’t want anybody to think badly of them. But constructive criticism is necessary to identify what needs to be changed, rearranged, or corrected. It can be done without hurting people. (It is usually more of a critique, than a criticism, anyway).

    The goal, when constructive criticism is offered, is to achieve the best for the association or business. If everybody shares that goal, the “criticism” is more likely to be seen as positive.

  2. February 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm


    I appreciate your comments. Thanks for sharing. A couple of thoughts:

    1. You raise a very good point: “Some people are afraid to criticize.” I’ve definitely witnessed this first-hand. It has a profound (negative) impact on the organization, as well as the individual. Which brings me to your second point (which I also support wholeheartedly).

    2. “The goal… is to achieve the best for the association.” It reminds me of Peter O’Neil’s discussion of servant leadership (also at the LSAE annual convention last week). The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay he first published in 1970. In that essay, he said:

    “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

    “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

    In other words, as servant leaders we have a responsibility to our constituents (and, in turn, our staff) to ensure growth, development, learning, quality and excellence.

  3. February 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Constructive criticism does seem like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Like you said, it has become a cliché with a negative connotation. The concepts of offering positive advice, rather than veiled critiques make better sense for morale, productivity and quality of work. For instance, if we have a bitter pill to swallow, would putting it in applesauce make us feel any better? Probably not, because we would still cringe knowing that the pill is there.

    It is important to hire and coach effectively. However, not all managers are able to hire everyone on their team. Many times managers have inherited staff. Still, it is the manager’s responsibility to cultivate a teamwork environment. They can find employees’ strengths and utilize them in ways that would benefit the organization. Instead of pointing out what “they” are doing wrong, there are other ways to resolve a potential critical situation. A manager can identify the strong points and exchange in dialogue on how to continue to align employees’ strength with the organization’s mission and guiding principles. This not only benefits the organization, but it makes the manager into a leader.

    Whenever leadership comes up, I think about sports. You can often see who the leader-first players are from the servant-leaders. For example, we have seen very talented players such as Terrell Owens, LeBron James and Deion Sanders who put their statistics first, then teamwork second. Typically they flaunt their wealth, cars, and other material possessions. They also can be showboats and difficult to play with on the team. Then, there are the servant-leader players like Peyton Manning who can coach players to win games together. Finally, we should also be optimistic that a leader-first person can become a servant-leader. Tony Romo has been growing into a servant-leader player and Jason Kidd changed into a servant-leader when he joined the Dallas Mavericks. We all have room to grow.

  4. February 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    I do not believe in constructive criticism. I am a proponent of The Feedback Model.

    Feedback is the most important manager tool in any situation and I have used it successfully for nearly 10 years in a range of settings including coaching basketball to managing lifeguards in stressful rescues. It is a model I first learned about, and continue to learn about, from The Manager Tools series of podcasts and would highly recommend them to everyone. (http://manager-tools.com/podcasts/manager-tools).

    At my organisation we have defined high performance as the multiple of technical competence x personal competence x cultural alignment. So when we provide feedback (weekly at 30min 1:1 meetings with all direct reports) we are in effect doing a performance review every week and the feedback can be provided in any or each of the three domains. With this clearly articulated a direct report knows that feedback about personal competence is not judgemental it is part of how their performance is being measured and is almost always taken in the spirit in which it is offered – to encourage high performance. Fundamental to this is asking the team member if they are open to feedback on their personal competence. If they say no, this speaks to their alignment to the organisational culture (openness) and is noted in their performance review.

    Being able to deliver (and receive) feedback effectively is something that can be learned, needs to be practised and in my experience has underpinned the success of our team and organisation.

  5. February 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Maricela and Robert, thank you both for your thoughts.

    Maricela, I particularly like your connection between servant leadership and sports. I think it provides timely examples for us to consider when bridging theory with practice (and determining whether or not our theories hold true in real life).

    Robert, I have always been a fan of the weekly 1:1. Done well, I find the practice akin to mentoring (a practice critical to personal/professional growth and development). And I think that your organization’s model, in particular, provides an important and necessary framework for the successful delivery of feedback. I like the structure created by the three domains – and the expectation that feedback in one or more of the domains is intended to promote and encourage high performance. Over time, the regularity of these meetings also allows a more meaningful relationship to develop between supervisors and their direct reports – further encouraging productive and genuine conversations about performance (both when performance exceeds expectations and, on occasion, when it falls short).

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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