I have delivered hundreds of leadership workshops in my years. The phrase that still crops up with scary regularity which I believe is fundamentally floored and damaging is ‘constructive criticism’. No matter how much progress we have made in investing in and developing our leadership and people, this phrase is still so ingrained with many employees, leaders, and organisational cultures.
Watch TV especially reality TV and you will hear the phrase with sad frequency; clearly, they have no idea either. Constructive criticism has become a phrase people default to without really thinking about it or its consequences.
I have been on a personal mission for a while now to re-educate people not only around this turn of phrase but embracing better the world of feedback.
Type the phrase constructive criticism into Google and you will find pages upon pages on how to give constructive criticism. Am I the only one who finds this a little amazing? Some of these pages even begin to talk about constructive Criticism then switch, morphing the phrase then into constructive feedback a few paragraphs later. The two are not the same… Some articles even suggest people should sort out what are helpful and unhelpful criticisms!
An article from the Guardian newspaper in 2012 states that “if someone has a criticism it means that they want to give you feedback on what you are doing for them.” Really? Are they suggesting that criticism = feedback? Later on in the article, a sub-heading is “Don’t take it personally”. It is fairly clear to me that this phrase has slipped in and become so embedded in our psyche and language that we have become numb and blind to what it means.
We really need to examine the words that make up this phrase to bring ourselves a dose of clarity and reality.
What’s wrong with constructive criticism as a concept?
Quickly examining dictionary definitions of both words reveals to us the true nature of them and how wrong it is to use it with employees. Ironically, many dictionaries refer to constructive criticism as an entity.
- Meriam Webster – promoting improvement or development
- Oxford Languages – having or intending to have a useful or beneficial purpose
- Meriam Webster – the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing: the act of criticising someone or something
- Oxford Languages – the exprerssion of disapproval of someone or somehting on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes
Even the unofficial Wikipedia shapes criticism as – the practice of judging the merits or faults of something
We see just from these definitions that the two words are opposite to each other. They are incongruent. Constructive is about the value in bringing out value (in someone or something) and done with positive intent. Criticism by nature is more negative in intent and outcome. The definitions suggest that the core focus of criticism is around criticism of the person or their faults. It also suggests judgment from one to another. Who are we as leaders and coaches to make judgments of others? Judgments that we know will affect people’s self-esteem and well-being. There is nothing in the language and intent that surround criticism that is helpful in the context of our people.
I was never top in maths at school, but I always remember that a positive multiplied by a negative always equaled a negative. It is the same with constructive criticism, it’s negative. Period.
Choosing a different language path…
Criticism of a person is the antithesis of what we seek to do as leaders and coaches with our reports and clients. We have a responsibility to bring a change where we can.
Whilst some people might argue that constructive criticism is just a turn of phrase, one that we shouldn’t worry about. The fact is that by not challenging and changing this, it normalises a mindset where criticism is ok in the workplace. That it is ok to criticise people for who they are or what they do in the workplace. Criticism is destructive, not constructive in our people relationships. People react to criticism, they are more likely to respond to feedback. By using the phrase ourselves, and not pulling up people who use it, however flippantly,. we create precedents, opposite to those we seek to promote and exist in our teams, engagement, and empowerment.
Why use such phrases when we have the opportunity to use others, feedback, motivating feedback, developmental or constructive feedback. These do not deny or ignore behavioral issues or errors. Instead, they focus on the value that people bring and how and where they can bring further value.
I am reminded of the classic adage, words are powerful, use them wisely.
So as we move inexorably into 2022, perhaps as leaders and coaches, we can look to make a resolution to think differently. Think differently about the words we use, the messages they send to others, and how they might be interpreted. I know I will be continuing in my mission to change how people think about feedback.
Nick Howell is a highly experienced coach, facilitator, and trainer. He is also the author of the successful book ‘Great Coaching Questions‘. Get in touch for a chat about how he can support your leadership development and coaching needs.