This article was originally published on the Forbes blog.
Constructive criticism is valuable feedback that allows people to correct mistakes, improve their processes and sharpen their skills. However, some so-called “constructive” criticism can teeter on the edge of unhelpful, or even harmful.
The effectiveness of feedback depends largely on how it’s delivered and the intent behind it. It can be difficult to spot the difference, though, especially in the workplace. To help, 14 Forbes Coaches Council members explain how to distinguish constructive feedback from harmful criticism, and how to deliver it effectively.
1. Does It Offer A Path To Improvement?
The intent of constructive criticism is to improve performance. It will be the beginning of a conversation where one person identifies a behavior and its impact on others. The other person responds, and the dialogue results in an agreement on specific changes that need to be made. Unhelpful criticism may refer to a general trait, rather than a behavior, and will offer no discussion around how to improve. – Susan Shirley, Global View Leadership
2. Will It Help Someone Change Future Behavior?
I do not like criticism, full stop. I prefer Marshall Goldsmith’s approach of “feedforward,” as that carries the connotation of changing future behavior and moving toward change, as opposed to away from it. – Peter Boolkah, The Transition Guy
3. Does It Guide A Person Toward Strategies They Can Use?
When told what to do differently, even with compassion and a solution-oriented focus, some people will always filter it through a lens of failure, negativity and blame. Therefore, when approaching someone with feedback, it can be extremely beneficial to not even point out the problems, but rather, to lead them toward effective strategies that they can begin to employ, as well as explain how those will benefit the individual and the team. – Laura DeCarlo, Career Directors International
4. Does It Offer An Opportunity To Learn And Develop?
Regardless of how the information is delivered, the bigger question is, “What can I learn, and in which areas can I develop?” We have no control over others’ delivery; but when you operate from a place where you assume that everyone is doing the best they’re capable of, and seek to understand and improve, that shows tremendous emotional mastery and lack of ego. We are only affected by others if we allow it. – Erin Miller, Erin Miller Inc
5. Does It Focus On Tasks And Results Or The Individual?
Constructive criticism focuses on the task or results. Harmful criticism focuses on the individual. The goal of criticism is to see growth in awareness. We want people to narrow, and ideally eliminate, the gap between what they intend to communicate and the impact that message has on their audience. – Julie Holunga, Chinook Executive Solutions
6. Does It Have The Recipient’s Best Interest At Heart?
For your criticism to be constructive, people must feel two things: that you genuinely believe in their ability to grow and that you have their best interest at heart. Neither can be faked. Because of this, Marshall Goldsmith’s “feedforward” is a more useful construct: “What information and insight will be useful to help you succeed in the future?” Your intent is clear. Now, they can absorb your insights. – Maureen Cunningham, Up Until Now Inc.
7. Has The Giver Taken Ownership Of The Feedback?
With constructive criticism or feedback, the giver of it takes ownership of the feedback, and the criticism is not personalized. It’s delivered not as “the truth,” but as a possibility that is sometimes true for the giver of the feedback. For example, saying, “You are an irresponsible person!” is not helpful. However, saying, “For me, your being late is disruptive sometimes, and we miss out on your contributions,” has the potential to be helpful. – Julie Colbrese, Hot Coffee Coaching
8. Does It Exercise A Growth Mindset?
Constructive criticism exercises a growth mindset. The critic’s intention is for you to move forward more successfully. It is specific, highlighting your actions and the impact they have. It allows a safe space for you to explore the “why” behind the “what” and alternative ways of approaching things in the future. When in doubt, ask yourself about the critic: What is their role? Interest? Intent? Mindset? – Deborah Goldstein, DRIVEN Professionals
9. Is It Designed To Help Improve Behavior?
Constructive criticism is about the behavior, how it impacts others and what can be done to change or improve it. Harmful criticism focuses on the person or personality. For example, telling someone that they are not a team player is unhelpful; telling someone that they need to offer help to teammates more often or to stop pushing their idea once it has been understood are examples of constructive criticism. – Christine Allen, Insight Business Works
10. Does The Communication Help Or Hurt?
Reaching out to provide advice and support is only for the recipient’s benefit. When you receive it, ask yourself, “Is this communication helpful or hurtful to me?” Your instincts will know immediately. Constructive criticism is priceless; it empowers you to evaluate your ways. – Barbara Adams, CareerPro Global, Inc.
11. Is It Specific, Timely And High-Fidelity?
Constructive criticism is feedback focused on the action, not the person, and it is not judgmental. It’s specific, timely and best given using high-fidelity modes of communication, such as speaking in person or over the phone, rather than by email or text. – Aaron Levy, Raise The Bar
12. Was The Feedback Asked For?
Constructive criticism differentiates itself from nonconstructive criticism in two ways: First, it is asked for. Second, it provides solutions rather than simply pointing out what is wrong. When providing feedback to others, start by asking if they are open to it, and end with at least one solution to help them course-correct. – Krystal Yates, EBR Consulting LLC
13. Does It Focus On Growth Or Personal Flaws?
Constructive criticism focuses on a path for improvement or growth. Harmful criticism focuses on flaws. Most people struggle to receive either kind of criticism. It takes humility to receive constructive critique, as well as maturity and confidence. Framing, timing and tone matter, and focusing on these elements will improve the chances of constructive criticism being received well. – Christian Muntean, Vantage Consulting
14. What Are The Merits Of The Criticism?
If you are the recipient, you are in control of the outcome. First, always take criticism with grace, regardless of what you think about the other person’s intent. Let it wash over you and allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, then consider the criticism on its merits. You are the one who decides what is valid and helpful to you. If it is helpful, put it to good use. – Leann Wolff, Great Outcomes Consulting