#9 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 3          October 1992 

Effective Criticism Made Easy:  Basic Rules for Delivering Negative Feedback to Others
by Robert A. Baron, Ph.D.

Dr. Baron is Chairman of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Managerial Policy and Organization Department. 

Quick:  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 longer.  Then, 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 Criticism:   

Before delivering negative feedback:
The crucial step--the one that should precede all the others--can be simply stated:  Before starting to criticize someone, ask yourself the following question:  "Why am I doing this?"  If your answer is "To help this person improve," proceed.  If it is anything else, such as "To even the score," "To make him/her look bad in front of others," or simply "Because I'm in a rotten mood," stop right there.  These are not rational reasons for criticizing another person. 

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:
The central principle is simply:  Do not engage in criticism when you are emotionally upset or under great stress.  If you do, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to adhere to the following guidelines: 

Be Specific:  A 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 more helpful.

Be Considerate:  Make 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. 

Don't 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! 

Avoid Threats:  If 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 productivity."  The 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 trained researchers. 

Focus 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.  Remember:  helping 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:
It would be nice if the process were completed after the negative feedback was delivered--after all, you have met your obligation and completed a distasteful task.  But I don't think this is really the end of the process.  Communication is always an uncertain process, and despite careful preparation and close adherence to the guidelines offered above, considerable noise can interfere.  Thus it usually helps to "touch base" with the recipient several times after expressing criticism.  At that time, you can probe the recipient's reactions (which often change after the initial shock), level of understanding, and the extent to which the recipient is implementing the agreed plan of action.  Without such follow-ups, it is too easy for individuals to regress to old patterns and attitudes, nullifying the benefit of your hard work in delivering effective criticism. 

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 research team(s).

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