A team member, working on a project with me years ago, had seen me give feedback to others. She noticed that I always pointed out ‘the positives’ before getting to what needed improvement, and especially so if the critique took place in a group-setting.
One day, she told me: “If you ever have to give me feedback, just get to the bad stuff first. Please don’t spend a lot of time telling me what’s great: it’s the bad stuff I need to know about.”
So there came a time when I had to identify a few things she needed to improve. I respectfully pointed them out, specifically and without identifying the positives upfront.
It meant I’d compromised my own leadership principles to give her what she’d said she wanted.
But she felt deeply hurt.
Praise matters. Everyone I’ve ever met wants to know what they’ve done well. The fact that you noticed it, the fact that you value it, matters. Praise matters.
Praise opens up a door for the recipient to hear and absorb your suggestions about weaknesses in their work. This is especially true for work that is very personal or tasks someone has laboured over.
Honest praise matters even more than criticism of weaknesses. Giving honest, specific praise allows you to reinforce the high standards that you believe the other person is capable of attaining. In some cases, that’s enough.
“I like how you described the setting in this particular paragraph. You used the five senses to great effect. It pulled me into the story and made me feel I was right there, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Do more of that when you describe the other settings in the story.”
Being specific in your critique of someone’s work can point the way to continued improvement, as the above once did for me.
Early in my career, I deleted entire scripts, short stories or scenes of TV shows because someone I respected said: “It doesn’t work”. It didn’t occur to me back then to ask: “What specifically doesn’t work?”
If someone requests your feedback, ask: “What specifically should I look for?” (Is it the storyline, the character development, the way you describe things, use of dialogue — what?)
Criticise the work, not the person. Most people flinch at receiving ‘negative criticism’. One way to make that even worse is to criticise the person, when you should be criticising the work. It’s fine to praise a person’s particular skill in a personal way (“I’ve noticed that you’re skilled at writing dialogue,”) but it’s not okay to say “I’ve noticed you’re really bad at dialogue.”
Praise in public, criticise in private. I learned this soon after becoming a leader. Even the strongest personalities can be hurt when their efforts are criticised in front of others.
Agree on Guidelines for Group Critiques. You need to share expectations upfront with your group, and give each other permission. Never take consent for granted, even when everyone says they know what they signed up for.
Critiques should build up, not beat down. It’s not just because “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”. It’s because feedback isn’t complete till you have identified both what works and what needs work. When someone receives your critique, s/he should feel equal parts challenged and empowered to make the changes required.