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Beyond Constructive Criticism

August 11, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

“It’s a great sign of respect to me if someone feels I’m strong enough and capable enough and objective enough to tell me when I’ve done or said something stupid. It’s only those who regard me as delicate, sensitive, weak or fragile who will not dare to disagree with me.”

—Abraham Maslow

In essence, Maslow tells us that honest criticism is the highest form of praise. He says that you’re an adult; you can handle the truth and you have the capacity to grow.

Henry David Thoreau observed, “People don’t give you their most effective criticism until you provoke them. Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness.” Because most people avoid conflict and want to be liked, they tend to tell you the unvarnished truth only when they are frustrated or downright angry. As a consequence, the truth will not always come across tactfully. Remember, the next time you get candid feedback from someone who appears angry or frustrated, be grateful for those emotions. Without them, the giver may never have found the courage to level with you.

We recently conducted a significant study in which we correlated people’s pay with their attitudes toward feedback. We found that those who were open to criticism in any form—who didn’t put preconditions on it, who didn’t say people had to be constructive or polite—earned significantly more money than those who said they were open to criticism as long as it was “constructive.”

One reason for this correlation is that people who are open to the gift of criticism, no matter how it’s wrapped, get more unfiltered information. With better information, they make better decisions. Better decisions lead to better work results and more satisfied customers. And in organizations that pay for performance, having more satisfied customers leads to higher pay.

The problem with making openness to criticism conditional upon it being “constructive” is that only the receiver gets to define what “constructive” means. Despite the best of intentions, tact and skill on the part of the feedback giver, if the receiver doesn’t like what they hear, they simply label the feedback “unconstructive.” The recipient then claims to have a legitimate reason to dismiss it.

What a weak excuse. In our experience, the person who says he is open to criticism as long as it’s constructive really doesn’t want any criticism at all.

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