Most people are wary – both of giving and of receiving criticism. In this series I show how reframing our understanding of criticism and implementing a few best practice rules for how it should be used in the workplace can have win-win-win effects.

Part 1: Where does criticism come from?!

It might surprise you to know that many people are actually trained to be critical – I am probably quite typical: In middle school we dissected the news every morning, in high school I was active in the school debating club, and at University I had a fairly standard scientific education which included training in philosophy of science, experimental design, and years of compulsory weekly group tutorials with professors where we looked at all sorts of science from world class nature papers to the draft articles and essays of our colleagues. So by the time I finished my PhD I was able to convincingly critique almost any paper or argument anyone presented to me – because, the argument went, if you know how criticism works you can write stronger papers.

Being able to critique almost anything, and do it fast, is a key skill I have relied on throughout my career – It has helped me assess the proposals and reports of consultants, write position papers, strategy and speeches that react to news; write robust reports; and do my own research work.

The whole system of science is based on peer review, which is essentially critiquing the science of your peers, to ensure that what is published has merit. But it’s not only science, that relies so heavily on criticism- ask any professional musician, politician, engineer, lawyer, chef, sports person, chess player or medic and this is usually how they learned, and how they were taught too. Even at primary school we teach children to mark each other’s work with two stars showing two things they appreciate, and one wish showing one thing that could be improved…

And yet most people think criticism in workplaces and in their daily life is a “bad” thing. I looked at quite a lot of what has been written on criticism ahead of writing this series of posts- and its fairly uniformly negative. The critic is portrayed as someone with problems, who is at best self-indulgent, negative and unfeeling; while the recipient is painted as the victim of what is portrayed as an unwarranted and almost abusive attach on their work and person. Much of the advice given centers around (i) avoiding giving anyone the opportunity to critique, (ii) avoiding the critics themselves, and if despite all this criticism still arises- (iii) shrugging it off and paying it no heed.

That surprised me: I was taught criticism was never personal - we may have critiqued science, the handling of something in the news, someone’s idea or opinion - but then we went for a beer. A similar example might be the BBC radio 4 Today programme where interviewers and politicians argue ferociously about opinions and positions, but off-air they chat about the weekend or enquire about the other’s family.

So… why the bad press? I read a poster in the school staffroom the other day which read “criticise the child and they learn to condemn”… and that got me thinking about words: The words criticise and critique are overlapping and are recognised as both necessary professional activities and negative activities: A Critic is someone who “expresses an unfavourable opinion of something” and also “a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally”; To critique is to “evaluate (a theory or practice) in a detailed and analytical way” while to criticise is to indicate the faults of (someone or something) in a disapproving way or to form and express a judgement of (a literary or artistic work). To condemn is going a step further and includes not only judging but also sentencing or censuring someone or something.

Criticism discussions often cut through any positional hierarchy and power- an undergraduate is expected to speak up and argue with a senior professor, a research team member or backbencher with their boss. But note too that some institutions have a big tradition of never criticising: the military for example or the church- both of which, for different reasons, put a high value on obedience and positional authority.

People who are good critics have a skill that they trust and value and that others often recognise them for. People who are good at critiquing things have a gift – when they engage with you, with that gift, it is often as a platform and a view for encouraging learning and development.

But when the recipient takes what is intended as impersonal critique personally, and also fails to realise that the criticism is intended as a platform for further discussion and debate – as an invitation to come back at them with robust counterarguments – then the dialogue not only ceases but collapses into a negative spiral…

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