Don't Make Constructive Criticism So Soft That People Miss Your Message
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Effective constructive criticism maintains a delicate balance. When criticism is too harsh, recipients shut down emotionally, get defensive, and fail to hear a word you say. When criticism is too soft, recipients fail to hear the message that they really do need to change.
It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and a minority of leaders strike it effectively. But I’m concerned because while I’ve historically found more incidences of managers delivering criticism that’s too harsh, lately I’m seeing a bigger problem with criticism that’s too soft.
Take Our Quiz: How Do You React to Constructive Criticism?
I recently conducted a 3-question quiz that assessed how over 1,800 leaders deliver constructive criticism. One of the questions asked respondents to indicate which statement best represented them, and here are the 4 possible choices:
- Employees need to know the cut-and-dried facts about whether their performance was bad, good or great. But I don’t get into emotional discussions of my feelings about their performance.
- I don’t have time to give constant feedback. If my employees want to know about the quality of their performance, they can schedule time to talk to me.
- Of course some employees feel criticized or offended by my words. Constructive criticism is supposed to be tough. It’s constructive, but it’s still criticism.
- I make constructive criticism easier to hear. I often use a compliment sandwich (a nice compliment, followed by a bit of criticism, followed by another nice compliment). If the employee shuts me out, they won’t improve.
About 31% of respondents chose Answer #1, which is good because that’s the answer associated with the most effective constructive criticism. Only 3% chose #2 (a laissez faire approach) and 14% chose #3 (a harsh approach).
What concerns me is that 51% of respondents chose #4. Now, some of the sentiment in that answer is fine; you don’t want employees to shut you out. But the compliment sandwich is rarely, if ever, a good approach to delivering constructive criticism.
Imagine your boss calls you in to deliver some constructive criticism in the form of a compliment sandwich. They might say:
You’re a world-class talent, the absolute best. You’re probably the smartest person in the department. Now, you’ve been pretty nasty during our weekly meetings, and it’s causing some hurt feelings. But I’m saying all this because you’re just so darn talented and I want to see you shine.
All I hear in that message is that I’m really smart and talented. (I wrote that sentence and it’s honestly hard for me to remember the criticism in the middle without rereading it). The constructive criticism is incongruous with all the compliments, and as a practical matter, people don’t usually remember the stuff that comes in the middle.
This is what psychology calls the serial position effect. If, for example, you were asked to remember a list of words, you’d likely remember the words at the beginning of the list and the words at the end of the list. And you’d probably forget the ones in the middle.
It’s worth noting that, depending on the study, the recall for the words at the end can be 3-5 times higher than for the words in the middle! (If that doesn’t make the case for not sandwiching your constructive criticism, I’m not sure what will).
I’m not suggesting that you should call employees into your office and verbally bludgeon them; that’s equally ineffective. But we leaders have an obligation to help our employees improve. And it’s abdicating our responsibilities to sugarcoat and water-down our messages to the point where employees don’t understand that they need to improve.
So, if you currently use compliment sandwiches, I’d like to suggest that you try a Softening Statement instead. Say something like:
I’ve got to deliver some constructive criticism. There’s no getting around it, but I want you to understand that I’m doing this out of a concern for your wellbeing; because not fixing this will do damage to your career.
This softens the blow while enforcing the message ‘this constructive criticism is really important for you to hear.’ And because it doesn’t stick an incongruous compliment at the end, it uses the psychology of the serial position effect to its advantage.
Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a New York Times bestselling author, a sought-after speaker, and he also teaches a series of weekly webinars for leaders.