Is “Constructive Criticism” an Oxymoron?

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The Financial Post’s recent article, “Constructive criticism is an oxymoron we should do away with,” is absolutely absurd. It not only misses the point of what constructive criticism is all about, it’s ridiculous and naïve.

While cloaking negative criticism as constructive feedback is surely suboptimal, to suggest that all constructive criticism is negative, as it does, is both misleading and inaccurate.

Each and every day there are countless instances of bosses (and colleagues) providing meaningful, thoughtful, feedback to people about how they can improve – and that counsel is received, and embraced, in the constructive spirit in which it was intended.

The Point of Constructive Criticism

The point of performance feedback is this: To inform someone about an aspect of their performance that they may, or may not, be aware of that is diluting their impact and influence.

Whether the feedback is positive or negative, constructive or destructive, right or wrong, or already known about or not, is entirely irrelevant — IT IS WHAT IT IS.

HOW We Receive Criticism

HOW we react/respond to such criticism is telling, though. “Levels of Leadership Success,” a self-study leadership tutorial on the LeadershipTraction website,  speaks to this very point:

  • Level 1 Leaders – those relatively inexperienced as leaders – tend to treat feedback as something to be DISPUTED.
  • Level 2 Leaders – more savvy and upwardly-mobile leaders –tend to treat feedback as something to be ACCEPTED
  • Level 3 Leaders – the most mature and advanced leaders – tend to treat feedback as something to be SOUGHT

The point is this: You will likely be judged AS MUCH IF NOT MORE on how you RECEIVE the criticism than what you do with it. (But you do have to do something with it.)

Let me repeat this for emphasis: You will likely be judged AS MUCH IF NOT MORE on how you RECEIVE the criticism than what you do with it. (But you do have to do something with it.)

Bosses are Often “Right for the Wrong Reasons”

But what if you really DO dispute the feedback? Or what if it really ISN’T constructive? What then?

The short answer is this: Figure out how to make it constructive.

My very first “real” job out of college was at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. One of my bosses there told me that my “problem” was that my desk was too messy and THAT was why I was missing deadlines and submitting substandard deliverables.

Huh?! Because my desk was a mess?!

Was it a mess? Well yes, but that wasn’t why my performance was falling short. It was falling short because I could never figure out what, exactly, my boss was asking me to do. He talked in code!

But it wasn’t until he gave me the WRONG reason – that my desk was a mess – that I took the time to realize the ACTUAL reason – that I wasn’t asking the questions I needed to ask, on the FRONT end, to find out what the heck he was wanting.

So even though the feedback was delivered poorly, and was factually inaccurate, it turned out to be surprisingly constructive, as well.

Similarly, when at the Merc, one of my bosses told me that my “problem” was that I didn’t know how to prioritize and THAT was why certain problems lingered for longer than necessary. In that moment, I realized two things:

  • Thing One – I actually did know how to prioritize
  • Thing Two – I wasn’t having powerful enough conversations with my staff and vendor personnel about how to solve these problems SOONER.

Again, the feedback was “wrong,” and really, really helpful.

In Conclusion

While I surely disagree with the premise and conclusions of The Financial Post’s piece, I appreciate how it both stimulated and clarified my thinking.

“Anything constructive is associated with growth, which requires a person to be open, not in a defensive state of mind,” it said. I Agree. And that’s as good a piece of advice for both the feedback RECEIVER and feedback GIVER, alike.

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