The Art of Criticism

Updated: December 13, 2010

Perfecting the Art of Criticism (Sidebar 2)

Early in my clinical training, I concluded that I might have the most brilliant clinical insights about my patient's dilemmas, but if I could not get them to be receptive to what I was saying, I, as a therapist, would be doomed to fail--- Your criticism of a marketing plan (evaluation of merits and demerits) might be solid, and you might be comfortable voicing your position, but if you cannot get the recipient of your criticism to be receptive to your thoughts, you can forget about it.

Furthermore, it was no flash of genius to know that even if my patients were positively receptive, if I couldn't motivate them to act upon therapeutic insights, the therapy must be evaluated as failure--- It's one thing to criticize your boss for his abrasiveness, but it‘s not the art of criticism if he remains the same

With these realizations, my therapeutic skills were crafted, honed, and fueled by theories and research in many fields; influential communication, psychology of change, systems theory, social psychology, cognitive and behavioral psychology, to name just a few. Studies in these areas have provided key concepts that provide underlying principles that impact giving and taking criticism.

The thousands of hours I've spent conducting workshops, seminars, teaching and, coaching managers and executives on how to give and take criticism has given me the hands on experiences to see what works, what doesn't and these observations and hard listening have allowed me to collect field tested effective strategies and techniques that make a significant contribution in helping people learn the art of criticism---the skill of being able to communicate to others negatively toned information about themselves/behavior/work results in a way that that makes them receptive to your thoughts and leads to change that facilitates situational and/or long term improvement, the historical goal of criticism.

What might this negatively toned information be?" It could be your boss's marketing plan is weak, your C Suite client is rude to your staff, your co-worker consistently interrupts you, your subordinate's critical thinking skills are subpar, your assistant's dress style is inappropriate, or (I've heard this twice), an individual is using the wrong bathroom during their sex change operation.

The list, compiled by over ten thousand working people, goes on and on. Each of these criticism encounters brings out unique and common issues, barriers, complexities that influence giving criticism effectively. While all of these factors are prevalent, depending on the situation, some are more prevalent than others.

Sometimes, what makes the situation difficult is the nature of the relationship you have with your recipient. Other times, it is difficult because of the specific behavior you wish to criticize. There are also those times when it is difficult because of how your recipient responds to you.

Also, depending on whom you are criticizing and what you want to communicate, the delivery is sure to vary. How, for example, you criticize a client for consistently being late to meetings may be very different than how you criticize other clients or a co-worker for the same behavior.

Thus, a requisite for the art of criticism is to leverage the psychodynamic complexities of the criticism encounter-whether it is the self esteem of the recipient or your own, the history of your relationship, the nuances of words, the presence of others, the moods of the moment, the values of the recipient, the length of the encounter, the organizational culture or spontaneity. Leveraging these psychodynamic complexities allows you to perfect the art of criticism.

To illustrate the art of criticism, I have chosen three of the most popular "difficult criticism encounters," the ones that keep people up at night and that I am asked in virtually every presentation on the topic:

  • "How do you criticize your boss?"
  • "How do you criticize someone who always gets defensive?
  • "How do you criticize someone for personal hygiene?

To facilitate your learning "the art," keep in mind that each example is a building block for the next.

How Do You Criticize Your Boss?

Hands down, this is the most frequently asked and most difficult criticism encounter identified by the working world. The solution, of course, varies across bosses and situations, but you will give yourself a head start if you rid yourself of the belief that if you criticize your boss, you will suffer negative repercussions, a perception which most individuals say is the major barrier to criticizing their boss.

While it is true that this scenario plays out occasionally, it is the exception. Most bosses-especially the most effective ones-welcome criticism from their subordinates. What they do not like is being embarrassed, (by an article in Rolling Stone, for example) threatened or undermined. For criticism that is packed with these qualities, negative repercussions became the norm. More than any other work criticism encounter, successfully critiquing your boss not only includes what you say but how you say it. In other words, psychology comes into play.

What is most important for you, the subordinate, to recognize is that unlike criticizing your subordinate, you do not have the authority to tell your boss what to do; your best play is to position the information to him in a way that increases his receptivity to your thoughts and perhaps prompts action.

Thus, the techniques for criticizing upward do not rely on direct, overt communication. The chain of command prohibits you from telling your superior that he's an idiot or that he made another foolish mistake, even if the superior says such things to you daily. Instead, to criticize upward and to create change at your superior's level, you must rely on informal relationships, timing, ambiguity, self-restraint, implicit communication and perhaps overcome your boss's perception of whether you are a worthy source of criticism.

For openers, adhere to these major ground rules:

  • Make sure your boss is receptive to criticism. There are no absolute ways to do this so use some soft signs: does your boss openly solicit criticism (your evaluations) and act upon those criticisms that are valid? Is your boss available to you, or do you have to spend a week just to set up a meeting? If you think your boss has low receptivity to criticism, than you may be politically wise to learn how to adapt to the situation than to criticize your boss, unless, of course, you can be extremely "artistic"
  • Make sure it is appropriate to criticize your boss. Only criticize your boss for something he or she is doing that affects your work. For situations in which you are not part of the project but the success of the project impacts your job, you will be able to still give your criticism, but only if you can demonstrate that the action your boss takes affects your job.
  • Know what you are talking about. Usually, your boss does not expect criticism from you, a tough expectation to combat. Therefore, it is essential for you to remember to validate your criticism; otherwise your boss may not only dismiss it but may begin to see you in a negative light, which no doubt will affect your job. Some ways for you to validate your criticism include collecting and analyzing data, accurately documenting how your boss's actions affect your work; and, if possible, consulting with other people.
  • Avoid a power struggle. Any strategy for criticizing your boss must protect his or her self esteem and acknowledge implicitly or explicitly that he or she is the superior; otherwise your boss is apt to become defensive and you can always count on the fact that once you and your boss lock horns, your boss will come out on top. The results for you are that your criticism is rejected and the status quo is maintained.

With these ground rules I've found two "techniques" that have proved to be consistent winners for criticizing your boss. The first is to present your criticism to your boss in a way that emphasizes the validity of the criticism per se. The point here is not to present yourself as a void source of criticism but to present your criticism as important and valid information. You are maximizing the significance of the information rather than taking the position that you, the subordinate, know best.

Instead of coming on as a know-it-all, you present yourself s sharing valuable data that relate to both your jobs. Your boss, instead of having to accept or reject a criticism, is now in the face-saving position of merely having to evaluate the information you are supplying. If the information is valid, there is an excellent chance your superior will take action to implement his decision. Some ways you can build up the validity of your criticism are: citing authoritative sources, submitting supportive at, and showing reference material to your superior.

The strategy is based on findings in attribution psychology as well as your own experiences; you can often get people to be receptive to your thoughts when they are attributed to a different source rather than yourself. This helps you avoid power struggles and be protective of your boss's self esteem.

A data analyst for a financial institution used this technique in criticizing his department head for the IT system he was considering. Instead of telling his boss that he we choosing the wrong system or that he knew which ne he should buy, the date analyst gave his boss several current reports that indicted anther system would be more responsive to their needs. His boss, after reading the articles, changed his choice n thanked her subordinate for supplying her with "invaluable information."

A second recommendation for criticizing your boss is to phrase the criticism as a request for help. When your boss responds to your request, in your mind, your criticism, he is resolving the criticism.

Instead of communicating what your boss is not doing right or what he needs to be doing, explain to him that you are having a problem and don't know how to solve it. Of course, from your perspective, the problem is your boss's behavior, but to express it as such will probably elicit your boss's defensiveness and create a power struggle that you will inevitably lose.

Therefore, express the criticism in the form of "problem that I am having, can you help me?" or, "I hope you can help me" The assumption is that your boss will recognize that the only way to help you is to change her own behavior. On the other hand, if your boss is able to help you solve the problem without changing his behavior, you still probably come out a winner because the situation has been changed for the better.

Those of you who take this approach can expect good results for a few reasons, many based on the social psychology studies that suggest people tend to be more receptive and responsive to information when they hear it as a request rather than a demand. Criticism presented as demand usually threatens the recipient's self-esteem. It is as if the criticizer is saying that he is superior and that his concerns are more valid; this is hardly a message that makes your boss receptive to your thoughts.

In contrast, phrasing the criticism as a request for help communicate several messages that increase your boss's receptivity. First you communicate respect because you're asking instead of telling. As respect is communicated, your boss's receptivity (and self esteem) is increased.

  1. There's a good chance that this ego boost will motivate your boss to take productive action.

Most importantly, you communicate you believe in her ability to achieve results. To phrase this more elaborately, when you explicitly ask your boss for help, you implicitly tap into her need to be needed and her need to achieve. For most people, satisfying these needs is a powerful incentive to action; when you arouse these needs, you are almost guaranteed that your boss will try to satisfy them by helping you generate a solution. Given these implicit messages, taking the one-down position requires self-restraint on your part, but the payoff is worth the price.

What about the impossible bosses? For such bosses, subordinates must create and develop different criticism strategies until one is successful. Some possible solutions:

When a stoic boss doesn't tell you where you stand, bring up the organization's goals as a basis for determining specific criteria for next year's performance rating, so "together" you can monitor your performance accordingly.

If the boss is crisis maker, develop a strong network of relationships with coworkers that will help you get information you need to assess the reality of the crisis.

When the boss is over controlling, work out of the office a lot if possible, and frequently reassures the boss that you're on target.

If your boss is abrasive at a meeting, right after, perhaps a one liner to pique his receptivity will start dialogue and change: "I'm not quite sure the way you are coming across is in your best interest."

If the boss is truly impossible, if he has a short temper, or if he never listens, then attempt to offer criticism only if you can be clever and creative.

Gear your strategy to answering the question: "How can I communicate this information so that my boss perceives it as useful?

How do you criticize someone who always gets "defensive?"

First, define defensiveness. It comes in all sorts of forms, such as silence, tears, excuses, interrupting, denial, retaliatory comments, and a host of others. As in criticizing your boss, strategies and solutions will vary depending on the type of defensive behavior you encounter.

Accordingly, it is always good "criticism policy" to assume your recipient will become defensive; you can then develop the habit of preparing for different types of defensive encounters, as does CEO quarterback, Peyton Manning

Next, realize that if defensiveness is the repetitive response to your criticism, whatever you are doing is not working---you are ineffective, the true source of your frustration. The typical response is to blame the recipient, "You are getting defensive," which more often than not emotionally escalates the encounter into non productiveness.

Instead, manage your frustration by acknowledging you can respond differently to the recipient--- if you find yourself dealing with a defensive individual, I'd bet you are contributing to the defensiveness by saying the same thing the same way, over and over. Changing how you respond will empower you to think strategically and generate an effective response.

Now consider why the recipient responds defensively. There are two theories of excuse making that offer general explanations that can be useful for shaping your criticizing technique.

The first attributes defensive behavior to the insecurity or low self esteem of the recipient; specifically, he or she equates the criticism as a threat—"I am a failure." Getting defensive is simply the recipient's attempt to protect his self esteem; that the recipient has a negative cognitive appraisal of criticism exaggerates feelings of insecurity. Typically, when this theory is in play, the recipient will frequently interrupt you, become annoyed if not angry, change the subject, and want to dismiss the conversation. To be effective, you have to prevent these behaviors from occurring; otherwise your message is blocked, nothing changes, your frustration increases.

The second theory assumes defensive behavior is the recipient's skillful ploy to avoid responsibility. Rather than getting the aforementioned defensive tools, your criticisms will prompt clichéd excuses, all having the common denominator of helping the recipient avoid responsibility and thus not be held accountable for his or her actions: "I was suppose to have the report finished on Thursday, but Jack gave me a priority assignment," really means, "The report wasn't suppose to be finished on Thursday because Jack gave me something more important to do". I am simply pointing out that he is not responsible for her results, and thus your evaluation of the situation is unjust. To be effective here, you have to get the recipient to accept responsibility as a prelude for being receptive to the information you present.

Naturally, the criticism technique you use depends on the type of defensive behavior encountered, and your theory as to what motivates the defensiveness, but regardless of these points, the art of criticism is predicated on the same strategy for all defensive behavior: to stop or interrupt the defensive behavior so that the recipient can acknowledge/process//internalize/reflect upon your criticism so that he or she can evaluate the information in a non-defensive manner.

Hearing the criticism non defensively allows the recipient to focus on how the information can be helpful, and thus, motivates change.

One effective technique that caters to both theories is to have the recipient delay his response based on the strategy that slowing down the recipient's response inhibits defensive arousal and will allow him to reflect on the information for positive benefits. Sometimes, the "slow down," can only be a few minutes, other times a few hours or few days. Note that you can use this technique if you are the boss because you have the organizational power to instruct your subordinate to hold his response, something I would not recommend telling your boss. This a good example of how organizational structure and rules effects giving criticism. Here is how a "boss" might execute the delay technique

Listen, I want to tell you something and I don't want you to respond…I want you to think it over. Most of the time when I criticize you, you have reasons for why something didn't happen as planned. A lot of times, these reasons make sense. But rarely---I can't think of one time, maybe you can---do I recall your saying that it was your responsibility or that you made a mistake. I find this makes it hard for me to help you develop because part of developing is acknowledging that you make mistakes. I also think that it prevents you from fairly evaluating your own strengths. Don't respond now. Think about it, and we will discuss it later on in the week.

Several point s are at play here. First, the boss points out that some of the subordinate's excuses were valid; failure to do this would probably cause your recipient to cite examples of legitimate excuses and thus discredit the overall criticism.

At the same time, she stated that while there have been legitimate excuses, she couldn't think of any times when the subordinate took responsibility, and she invited the subordinate to cite one. This is a neat way to imply "always" without actually saying "always," a word that usually triggers defensiveness.

The third point to note is that the superior did not lean too hard on the subordinate; rather, she implied that she sees the subordinate as someone who has the ability to develop, but only if he takes responsibility for his results. This puts the subordinate in a bind: The only way he can improve is to acknowledge that he is responsible for results.

Finally, anytime a defensive person responds non defensively, remember to reinforce his "openness and taking responsibility" for the results and quickly move on to discussing how t improve the situation. Over time, you will see his defensiveness diminish.

What if the defensive behavior is anger? Process the response and clarify your positive intent: I hope you do not find what I am saying is threatening; I don't mean it to be, my intent is to help you.

In a performance appraisal, if the defensive behavior is tears: you take a time out: I know this is difficult for you; I'll give you some time to regain your composure and be back in ten minutes to continue our discussion (crying time will diminish).

For a defensive coworker: emphasize how your success is dependent on each others, focus on common goals, and use cooperative language: "We have a better chance to get the clients business if we both get to the meeting on time," then, "you have to be there on time," or "don't be late"; since you are not your coworker's boss, you cannot order him or her as your boss can order you.

What if your recipient is arrogant and refutes all your efforts? "Hey, Jack, what's the best way to tell you something so you won't get defensive? Like, if I wanted to tell you that you are a poor listener, what would be the best way to tell you so you hear my message?" (The art is that you've already told him!")

What if the defensive person is your boss? Reread "how do you criticize your boss?

How do you Criticize Someone for Personal Hygiene?

For this criticism encounter, the art of criticism combines three steps and while you may still perspire while giving the criticism, what you say won't stink.

The first step is to focus and manage the specific factor that makes it difficult to tell someone he smells. The most frequent response is that it is personal-not work related. Yet, anyone who has worked with person with poor hygiene knows that it is very difficult to work with someone who gives off offensive odor, whether it a team member, boss, subordinate, or client, so it is work related. As to it being personal, it is-as is all criticism. Many are taught, "Focus on the behavior, not the person," but you are the behavior. Put down a person's work and you are doing the same to him.

Further exploration of the question inevitably leads to the root of the difficulty and uniqueness of the encounter: It is embarrassing; in fact, most people cite this as the most embarrassing type of criticism to give, so for your criticism to be effective, you have to manage the embarrassment of the situation, the moods of the moment.

You can do this my using an emotional intelligence principle: all emotions, embarrassment, anger, anxiety, joy, fear, provide valuable information that we can use to help navigate through life's encounters more productively.

Most people manage embarrassment by avoiding the situation but if you do this in this case, the smell still lingers. Others mull through the encounter making believe it is not embarrassing, which paradoxically, intensifies the embarrassment which becomes evident as you sweat and stumble through the conversation.

It is better to act with EI: self disclose you are feeling embarrassed and in so doing, you bring out the uncomfortable feelings you (and probably the recipient) are experiencing in the encounter. In essence, the embarrassed feelings are no longer hidden, and there being out in the open allows you to confront and mange them productively.

"I find this to be embarrassing," or, "I feel embarrassed bringing this up, and you probably do, too," will do; you will find that self-disclosing your embarrassed feelings instantly reduces the tension of the situation which puts you in a much better position to deliver what is still sensitive information.

Step two is to begin the criticism in way that protects the person's self esteem. With your boss, you do this by avoiding power struggles. Here, you have to remember that the emotion of embarrassment centers on shameful thoughts and feelings. You do not want the recipient to feel he is being belittled or humiliated, as these thoughts will evoke hurt feelings and defensiveness.

A strategy to use: mention the criticized behavior s if the individual is unaware of it; if he is not aware, there is no reason to be embarrassed. Even if he is aware of her offensive odor, he can now save face by thanking you for something that he "was not aware of." "I'll take care of it immediately" is the usual response.

The third step is to make the criticism work-related to overcome the barrier that criticism is personal and is therefore off-limits. Now, you have made it a performance issue, not a personal issue-even though it is.

Putting the three steps together, criticizing a person for personal hygiene might sound like this:

I'm embarrassed to have to tell you this, and you might be too; nevertheless, I wanted to bring to your attention your personal hygiene. You are probably not aware that you have some body odor, and it's making it difficult for clients and coworkers to work closely with you. I thought you'd want me to bring it to your attention so you could take care of the matter.

A sweetening of this approach was reported to me by a sales manager for a major fashion retailer. She added: "We bought you some wonderful products to help you," an action that demonstrated to the recipient that her boss and coworkers wanted her to enjoy the sweet smell of success.

The all time artistic example was told to me by a participant in Wharton executive education class:

"When I was in the army, there was a corporal who had terrible body odor. The sergeant told his superior, the private to shape him up, but no improvement was seen. The sergeant then told the private to tell the corporal that if he didn't improve his personal hygiene, the private would be ordered to get in the shower with him and wash him. The corporal shaped up immediately."

Criticism Rules (Sidebar 3)

The three preceding examples, all of which could be handled in numerous other ways, illustrate how to apply some of the factors that influence giving criticism effectively. The factors are applied differently, but more or less, they are consistently the same ones.

  1. Since Checklists are proven to be valuable tools for establishing and enhancing effective behavior, I'll offer you my checklist of criticism rules that are steeped in the ancestry of criticism.

There is one caveat. Master critic, Henry James, in his version of The Art of Criticism, purports a great critic has as much as what is called human nature as of erudition and knows how to make them go hand in hand. In other words, your skill for applying the art of criticism will depend on how well you can package, customize, and individualize the criticism rules to the specific criticism encounter. The more ways you can do it, the better critic you will become. (To facilitate your learning, you might want to revisit the three examples to see if you can identify how the rules have been applied)

  1. Manage your emotions: criticism communicated with anger and disappointment lessens the positive impact of your message. Before you criticize, calm yourself, perhaps by using productive self statements: "stay focused, breath slowly", and remembering your positive intent.
  2. Be Strategic: "How can I communicate this information so he/she will be receptive?" is first. Next, anticipate their reaction and how you will respond if he/she becomes: angry, silent, retaliatory, cries, or flatly denies what you say. There is no right way to give criticism; only different ways. Think of a criticism you have to give—can you communicate it three different ways?
  3. Protect self esteem: Your coworker might be stubborn but calling or thinking of him as pigheaded will not help. Avoid destructive labels, and make criticism a matter of differences, not right-wrong; the latter creates power struggles.
  4. Leverage Timing: "Is this the time to offer my "evaluation?" There is a time and a place for everything and you can phrase criticism perfectly but if the timing is off, all is for naught. Do you criticize someone publically or privately, and when would you make exceptions?
  5. Be Improvement oriented: You can't change the past so stop telling him or her what they did wrong, it will only evoke defensiveness. Focus on how results/project/behavior can be improved by emphasizing future performance: "Next time you give a presentation, leave more time for questions."
  6. Remember the merits without the But: Criticism is an evaluation of merits and demerits, not merits but demerits. The word but negates, as in "You are doing great but…. Better: "Here are some ways the report can be even better ….And… are the parts that are really good." Remembering the merits also helps both parties keep criticism in perspective.
  7. Acknowledge your subjectivity: Your criticism is not a fact nor should it sound like an accusation: "Your work is sloppy." --is countered with, "that's your opinion," and so it is, so take responsibility for your thoughts and minimize defensiveness; "In my opinion….I think… This is how it looks to me," are non accusatory and help make recipients curious to hear your thoughts. Your work is sloppy would be better communicated as, "I think you can make your work a lot better."
  8. Put motivation into your criticism: "work hard so I can get my promotion "is surly not going to have motivational impact. People change for themselves. Before you criticize, "How is this going to help my recipient?" Are there tangible incentives-raise, promotion, or non tangible incentives- recognition, group inclusion. If one incentive doesn't work, try another What if there are no incentives? How do you motivate the unmotivated?
  9. Know your criterion. Avoid criticism conflict by identifying, clarifying, and communicating the criteria you use for formulating your criticisms. People use different criterions to evaluate the same work, and often interpret the same criterion differently. Can you really articulate the difference between a "4" and a "5"? Is everyone using the same criteria? Is your criteria realistic and when does it change? Is your staff in synch on criterions?
  10. Reinforce, trouble shoot, back to being strategic. When you note a positive response to your criticism, make sure you support the efforts by offering praise: "Thank you for being open to what I have to say," "Hey, I see you are really doing better…Great!" If you are not getting the results, step back, look at how you are presenting the criticism, and try a different approach…there is always an option!
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