Leadership Move: How to Shift from Criticism to Feedback

If you’re not clear on the difference between criticism and feedback, you could be missing out on your best coaching and developmental opportunities. I’m going to illustrate how this happens by sharing a particularly cringe-worthy error from my past but first let’s define what we’re talking about.

The Difference Between Criticism and Feedback

Criticism is easy to identify when you’re on the receiving end. Nobody likes it. It makes us feel bad — like we missed the mark. We blew it. On the other hand, feedback usually makes us feel better, more hopeful. We’re ready to try again. What differentiates the two? It’s all about timing. Criticism looks back at an event that’s done and finished and often comes from a superficial understanding of the situation. Think of the expression Monday morning  quarterbacking. The Urban dictionary describes it perfectly.

Monday morning quarterback: A person who analyzes mistakes the day after they’re made.

I’m sure you’ve heard those Monday morning conversations pointing out the coach’s strategic errors  during Sunday’s game. It amounts to looking back and pointing out where somebody screwed up.

Feedback, on the other hand, is forward focused. It builds change into the future by opening a conversation about what we could do differently next time. It’s a collaborative approach that  builds trust and develops skills.

My Really Big Mistake

A prospective national customer — one my company really wanted to land — handed me a proposal she had received from a local branch. It contained quite a few typos (each of which she had circled). After pointing out that this very document mentioned our high standards of quality umpteen times, she asked me to take it back to head office and share her comments with senior leadership.  I did. Unfortunately I also shared the comments with the manager who had produced the proposal. She promptly dissolved into tears of frustration and embarrassment.

What went wrong there? Believe it or not, I thought I was sharing valuable feedback. But pointing out past errors doesn’t give the recipient any new tools or techniques to try out. It simply makes people feel bad. I’m not sure which of us felt worse — it was bad all around, except that it did serve as an unforgettable lesson for me.

Common Examples of Criticism

These statements are pure criticism with no redeeming qualities.

“You could have paid less for that car. That dealership is known for high prices.”

“You should have reminded the customer about the price breaks he got last quarter before giving him another discount.”

“If your house sold that quickly, your price was too low. You got ripped off.”

“Your sales would have been way higher last month if you had filled that big order before the competition did.”

“You should have used our wedding photographer. He’s much better than the one you used”

“You paid how much?” (accompanied by disapproving eye roll)

These statements are not helpful because they’re made after the fact: it’s too late for the recipient to use your advice to get a better outcome on the situation in question. It’s over and done with. You could argue that these comments will help the person the next time he or she is in the same situation — but I’d disagree with you. There’s a better way.

Feedback Shift

Here’s a different approach. Start the conversation by suggesting a debrief. Ask for permission to probe — this is important, especially if the person reports to you or is junior to you in the organization. A respectful and caring manner will show your intention is to help. Ask questions to make sure you understand and have the details down pat.

When the conversation reaches the part where training is needed, ask him if he’s happy with the outcome. Would he do anything differently next time? Helping him analyze his performance and providing tips he may want to try in the future is a fear-free way to provide feedback.

The most important difference between criticism and feedback is the way it makes people feel.

Once you learn to spot the difference between criticism and feedback, you can adopt a more intentional — and more effective — approach.


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