In engineering or any other professional environment, employee productivity and efficiency can’t flourish without feedback. Whether positive or negative, it impacts our work results, motivation, and overall communication with colleagues.
According to research, praise doesn’t necessarily lead to positive results, and criticism — to negative ones. As authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well explained, it’s challenging for a person to accept either positive or negative feedback “because it hits us in the vulnerable soft spot:”
On the one hand, we want to grow; on the other hand, we crave respect and acceptance.
And yet, we are much more vulnerable to negative things, including criticism, and we remember it stronger than praise.
Two reasons why it’s so:
- Evolution. It has taught us to react to negative stimuli faster: They often meant a threat in the wild, so paying attention to them in time was critical for survival. Today, we feel criticism as a threat to our standing in the eyes of others; that’s why it’s so tough for us to hear it.
- New experience. We react stronger to unusual stimuli: In a culture where polite approval is the norm, open and direct criticism is perceived by us as something unique and new, making a more remarkable impression.
What does it all have to do with our work?
It stands to reason that constructive criticism is a necessary element of employee relations and communication. It’s that very tool helping us get support, learn from mistakes, and correct them.
Our ability to offer and handle criticism may lead to bolder and more creative decisions. It teaches that our actions and work are not necessarily to everyone’s liking. As far as we can’t evaluate the result of our work with an unbiased eye, constructive criticism helps us identify weak points and see what we can do to improve them.
We understand that it’s better to hear unpleasant yet constructive feedback about a project’s flaws than a false assurance that everything looks perfect.
But given our natural vulnerability to criticism, it can hurt or even kill work communication and efficiency when done wrong. Fortunately, we can learn and follow some practical rules of how to provide constructive criticism at work. They allow building healthy communication with colleagues and responding to criticism appropriately if it comes from their side.
Six rules to follow for constructive criticism at work
1. Remember the goal of criticism
Criticism is about fixing a problem that bothers us or others or helping a person become better at something. So before we start criticizing, it’s worth asking, “What are the goals of this particular conversation?” Let’s make sure we understand the methods a colleague used and what their intentions were. Otherwise, we won’t form an objective opinion about their work, and our criticism will be useless, if not harmful.
2. Discuss one problem at a time
A widespread mistake in working relationships is complaints accumulation. It often happens when we don’t want to provide edits on the project once we receive the information. Instead, we wait in the hope of later changes, but the flaws grow — and eventually, we blow up and criticize everything at once. And sure thing, we do that with negative emotions that are natural for such a situation.
Let’s remember that it’s wrong to wait and tolerate colleagues’ mistakes, relying on their understanding. They won’t realize that something is wrong, and they’ll continue to act the same until we give them feedback.
3. Express the understanding of an opponent’s feelings
It’s critical to remember that any task, even a seemingly simple one, can be difficult for someone at first. Thus, a yesterday student of a coding camp who has never drafted a business letter can screw up or ask questions a professional engineer might find ridiculous or naive. But it doesn’t mean that beginners can’t handle that task — they just need some time to learn.
By showing that we understand what might make a colleague nervous about a task, we gain their trust and demonstrate that our goal is not to abuse but help.
4. Avoid criticizing in public
Screwing up in public is among our biggest fears today. Especially when a person we cannot object to (e.g., a boss) shames us in front of others. It leads to hidden aggression, preventing us from taking any criticism, even constructive one.
And while most employees can tolerate this way of criticism and don’t resent it, it undermines their trust by all means.
A healthy emotional climate in a team is critical to support for work effectiveness. So please don’t use team chats for writing who is wrong, even if you want to prevent other colleagues from making the same mistakes. It’s better to talk to the person one to one, clear everything up, and then give general instruction to others for better engagement.
5. Don’t demand an immediate response
For evolutionary reasons, our brain hates changes because they can be dangerous. (Hello, a self-preservation instinct!) And even when it comes to such a rational matter as work relations, the fear of the new comes around, preventing us from professional development.
Speaking of criticism, it results in our need for time to absorb new information and build it into our “operating system.” That’s why it’s wrong and useless to be angry at a colleague if they don’t get our comments at once and don’t hurry up to participate in the discussion, flourishing with new ideas.
It’s better to ask how much time they need to consider concerns and respond to them.
6. Remember that no one is perfect
It would help if we paid respect to others’ feelings. While we all should be ready to handle criticism at work appropriately, we aren’t robots but humans undeserving humiliation.
When criticizing, it’s worth combining valuable edits and comments with humanity for a person to understand that no one treats them as machines but does want to help make their work better. To bring that very humanity to the conversation, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our own mistakes:
This way, we show that we don’t consider ourselves the only one who’s right here but that mistakes are a natural part of the work process, and they happen to everyone.
In a Word
It’s wrong to consider criticism nothing but an accusing monologue. First and foremost, it’s a form of communication; that’s why all our remarks, concerns, and points of objection should sound respectful and friendly.
One of the most common techniques to thrive here is a so-called “criticism sandwich,” when we set our critic in a frame of praise. Yes, it has both pros and cons, but it’s not that bad way to start practicing constructive criticism at work.
It is essential to understand that criticism is a skill that can and should be learned, given the will.