#9 from R&D Innovator
Volume 1, Number 3
Effective Criticism Made Easy:
Basic Rules for Delivering Negative Feedback to Others
Dr. Baron is Chairman of the
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Managerial Policy and
What is your most unnerving task as a research
administrator--the task that you'd most like to avoid?
If you are like me, your answer goes something like this:
"Giving someone the 'bad news'--telling someone on my
team that her or his performance is not up to par."
If giving negative feedback disturbs you, don't be alarmed. Research findings indicate that practicing managers in a wide
range of organizations and industries view the task of criticizing subordinates--giving them negative feedback--as one of
the most distressing (and stressful) tasks they face. Apparently, very few people enjoy playing the role of
"bearer of ill tidings" and having to watch other people
learn that their work has somehow been lacking.
Unfortunately, this understandable
reluctance to deliver negative feedback can prove costly.
Consider how the process often unfolds.
If you are hesitant to criticize, you don't deliver it when
the problem starts. Thus,
poor performance and related problems may persist; and even,
intensify over time. Eventually,
since you are in authority, you must take
corrective action--as the responsibility for poor performance
ultimately rests with you. But
by this time, when you have reached the end of your own emotional
rope and simply cannot tolerate the current state of affairs any
negative feedback is unlikely to be effective.
Instead of helping recipients improve--the only
rational reason for delivering negative feedback--the criticism
tends, instead, to anger or provoke them.
And from the recipient's perspective, such reactions make
eminent sense: "If
I haven't been doing a good job," such persons reason,
"why didn't you tell me sooner?"
In short, most of us don't do a
very effective job of delivering negative feedback.
We do criticize from time to time; for example, when yearly
performance reviews leave us no alternative.
But we don't provide the useful day-to-day feedback that
helps people improve and also prevents the negative emotions that
often accompany the belated delivery of criticism.
The process described above--delivery of informal negative feedback--has been the topic of a growing body of empirical research. I have been involved in such research myself, and find that costs associated with delivering negative feedback in an ineffective manner--something I term destructive as opposed to constructive criticism--can indeed be high. In several studies, I have found that people exposed to destructive criticism tend to suffer such adverse effects as reduced self efficacy (reduced confidence in their ability to perform various tasks), lowered motivation and self-set goals, simmering feelings of anger and of being treated unfairly, plus increased tendencies to attempt to resolve interpersonal conflicts through head-on confrontation rather than through compromise or collaboration.
My research also indicates that
recipients tend to view destructive criticism as unfair and
unjustified. But what
makes criticism constructive rather than destructive?
From my own insights as well as systematic research, I have
formulated a short list of points to consider before, during, and
after criticizing others. Together,
these constitute my Basic
Rules for Delivering Constructive Rather than Destructive
Before delivering negative feedback:
Then prepare. If you are going to deliver negative feedback, be sure you
have concrete examples at your fingertips.
You must be able to cite "chapter and verse."
Be sure to have all the facts.
While delivering negative feedback:
common error is to offer negative feedback in general terms, such
as "Your reports aren't very good," or "Your
research needs to improve."
Such comments leave the listener in the dark about
precisely what would
constitute good performance.
More specific comments such as "You've missed too many
report deadlines this year,"
"Directors are complaining that your reports are too
long," or "Your problems could have been prevented by
interacting more closely with the rest of the team," are much
your remarks calm and rational--something that's almost impossible
to do when you are upset. Do
your best to make certain that these are stated in palatable
terms. You need not
sugar-coat your remarks; but do remember that being on the
receiving end is as painful--perhaps even more painful--than
delivering criticism. Finally,
be sure to deliver negative feedback in private; criticizing
people before others is rarely appropriate.
Assume That You Know the Causes Of Poor Performance:
If you jump to a conclusion about why someone is performing
poorly, you are likely to say something like, "You really
didn't give this your best shot," or "Maybe you don't
have what it takes...."
Avoid such statements because they are not relevant to the actual
cause of the problem. I'd
also not be quick to conclude that the causes were internal and
thus controllable by the recipient.
In fact, performance on complex tasks is influenced by many
factors and only some of these relate to motivation, effort, or
ability. Consider the
possibility that external factors play a role.
For example, even the most dedicated researcher can run
into unexpected difficulties that he or she cannot control.
For this reason, it's important to try to avoid assuming
that you know the causes behind inadequate performance.
In many cases, these are in a gray area, and are best left
there's one thing that makes people angry when being criticized it
is being threatened, directly or indirectly.
Direct threats like "If you don't start getting
results, you'd better begin looking for another job,"
obviously will put someone on the defensive. But even relatively
subtle remarks can also be unnerving:
"Future project assignments have to reflect past
key point is that: threats
back people into a corner and suggest that there's no room for
negotiation--either they do it your way or dire consequences will
follow. This is
usually counterproductive, especially when dealing with highly
On the Future, Not The Past:
While it's true that we often must understand the past to
change the future, where criticism is concerned, it can be a
serious blunder to dwell on the past.
Beyond a certain point, rehashing mistakes just increases
tension and assures that recipients will spend their time arguing
rather than listening. It is usually more useful to concentrate on where we go from here--on what specific steps can be taken to
improve the recipient's performance.
others to improve is the key goal of negative feedback.
It makes more sense to formulate concrete plans for change
than replow old ground.
After delivering negative feedback:
To most people, except for those
who truly enjoy inflicting pain and embarrassment, providing
negative feedback to subordinates is difficult.
Certain pitfalls await anyone--even someone of exceptional
good will--who must criticize others. Yet some basic guidelines will enhance the benefits of
negative feedback and guide you past some of these pitfalls. Delivering constructive criticism is, indeed, an effortful
task that requires planning, thought, and self-restraint. Yet I firmly believe that, in the long run, anyone who takes
the trouble to develop and use this skill will improve his or her