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 2: The misunderstood critic

When Critics are let loose on the workplace… What often happens is different to what they are used to: Most likely the recipient will feel condemned - their work has been found lacking, and they feel personally attacked. Relationships shear, teams fall apart and projects stall….

It’s not the critic’s fault.

I’ll say that again: It’s not the critic’s fault


Getting this reaction: the critic most likely feels unappreciated, disappointed and confused- their ideas, enthusiasm and their gift has essentially been thrown back in their face. In the critic’s world people argue back: People would know it was professional, not personal. When nothing comes back and no one engages with them critics lose motivation, enthusiasm - and without the opportunities for open discussion they stagnate, become disenfranchised, and eventually leave….

And having said that- neither is it the recipient’s fault: if they have not come from this background, have not had this robust training- then they may feel as though a steamroller has hit them. If the criticism comes from someone who has positional, hierarchical, power then that can be frightening and scary. People often confuse criticism with bullying …

So what often happens is that the critic- aware that they must tread carefully waits until they can present a really good, robust and well considered case… of course for the recipient that feels even more like condemnation- and the recipient may feel there is nothing whatsoever they can say in their own defence , so they don’t respond at all- and the critic feels rejected and baffled... Next time the critic tries harder, makes an even better case, and the situation worsens.

Another common scenario: In the workplace a senior team member critiques your work and you crumble, finding yourself reacting like a petulant kid being told off by a parent... Often, even between colleagues, the critic will take on the role of parent and the recipient takes on the child role – the more the critic tries to explain in a structured and calm and logical way, the more the recipient feels they are being told off – and the more they react like a petulant child, often bursting into tears, resorting to anger, sulking and shouting or running out of the room and doing the office equivalent of slamming their bedroom door…

Sometimes the critic is actually asked for a critique- there is even an official mechanism in place- e.g a critic has just been on course and the organisers have given them a feedback form. It has lines of smiley-frowney faces to check in response to questions, and a blank box for general comments on how the organisers could improve the course. The critic feels strongly that some things could be improved and fills the sheet in, most likely even adding a paragraph or two in the comments box…. The helpful critic perhaps even stays behind to discuss and explain their comments with the organiser…. What is interesting about this scenario is that the recipient actually asked for the critique… there was a formal mechanism in place that seemed to suggest honest feedback was sought- but actually the organiser had not really contracted with themselves about being detached and impersonal- it was their workshop, their delivery, they were invested and- they felt judged and attacked by the comments….so they duly dismiss both the comments and the critic - and nothing changes.

In another scenario the critic is motivated by standing up for their values: e.g. a critic perhaps feels the senior management are wrong in their approach towards a specific group e.g. women staff members, and that they (the critic) must speak out to defend those people – so that next time this situation can be avoided. The critic is highly animated, forthright, convinced, structured and passionate. What may happen here is that the project managers are surprised by this level of engagement… The women staff members have not asked the critic to defend them, and may not be anywhere near as upset as the critic- and they, like the SMT, may be surprised and puzzled by this level of engagement…. So the critic isn’t making friends and influencing people- but has successfully become isolated both from both those they are criticising and from those they are “defending”… Even though they may not realise this and may still feel passionately that they are “right”. Noone ultimately engages with the critic, they are quietly labelled as tetchy or difficult, and because no one engages with them they cease to engage with the work…

Hopefully everyone will recognise at least one of these sorts of scenarios, either from the point of view of the critic or the recipient. What is important to note is that the critic is usually engaging with goodwill, and their intention is to be helpful and constructive, but that the outcome in almost all cases is a negative spiral of disengagement that benefits no one. What is needed is reframing…

Thanks to fellow coach Miranda Salmon for interesting discussion around these scenarios
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