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Constructive Criticism—Help, Don’t Hurt

04/15/2021 | Umberto Fedeli

How leaders can offer thoughtful feedback and support

We can all learn from the successes of others, and from their mistakes—or at least we should try. By watching how some accomplished individuals operate, we can take away lessons and try to avoid repeating errors that can cost time, money, relationships and reputations.

We can all benefit from stepping back and reviewing the interactions we have watched or participated in and ask ourselves: “How could that have gone better?” That includes asking the questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Who are your role models? What response did that business owner have when a customer expressed disappointment? When should I respond in what way? Where could I improve to make a more positive impact? Why is this important? How did these events unfold? We need to work towards being the best version of who we can be.

When we take time to watch and learn, we are better equipped to make decisions about how we will behave in a positive manner. We can model ourselves and our behaviors to those we admire and avoid the mistakes of those with undesirable ethics and/or characteristics. We also learn and improve by accepting constructive criticism from others. Some criticism may be practical and lead us to develop and grow as a businessperson or individual, while others may be quite terse and feel ungrounded, or even demeaning. This type of criticism is never helpful. It ruins relationships, degrades trust and reflects poorly on the person giving the direction. Constructive criticism is important; both to give and to receive.

If you are in a position of leadership—whether managing a department, overseeing a corporate headquarters, running a family or organizing a volunteer group—then you have been given a gift. You are in a unique position to lead by example. You can provide constructive feedback that can be helpful to those around you. How you offer insight is nearly as important as what it is that you say. And sometimes if the who isn’t right, the what doesn’t matter.

I’ve found in business, and in my personal relationships, that you can say almost anything to give valuable direction, as long as you begin with a softening statement. This is so the recipient of your feedback understands that your insight is coming from a good place. “I mean this with no disrespect...” “You know I care about you…” “You know how much I respect you...”

Direct, offensive language that insults the person you are talking to will get you nowhere. They will not understand your position and certainly will not agree with it. If you attack them with a demeaning phrase, you’ll spark defensiveness. “Why would you do something so stupid?” or, “Don’t you know better than do to this?”

Sometimes, when I want to help, I begin to offer advice before realizing that the person who is sharing a circumstance or hashing over a problem with me would rather I just listen. Regardless of if I begin with a softening phrase, my feedback is not what the other person is seeking. Determine if your advice or your open mind and listening ear are what a confidante truly wants.

We all learn by watching others. We take advice when it is respectfully offered and should use it as a way to improve upon ourselves in a positive manner. These are lessons about constructive criticism that we can all use to improve in business and in life. The intent should be to help, not to hurt.