Constructive Criticism: Nix Those “Sandwiches”

Is constructive criticism really constructive? Not really. You can’t make a child better by pointing out what you think is wrong with him or her. Criticism either crushes spirit or elicits defensiveness. Constructive criticism is an interesting combination of words. “Construct” means “to build.” “Criticism” means “to tear down” It creates defiance and anger as well. H. Norman Wright

There is no such thing as constructive criticism,” says John Gottman. “All criticism is painful.” He is correct. We never like to hear that there is something “wrong” with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on. Psychologist Jill Hooley’s work at Harvard measures the impact of critical, hostile comments made by loved ones and shows just how venomous disparagement by those we rely on can be. This censure may even trigger relapse of mental illness, such as depression. Sue Johnson, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships

Tony Schwartz has a great opening in his Harvard Business Review article on this subject:

Here’s a question guaranteed to make your stomach lurch: ‘Would you mind if I gave you some feedback?’

What that actually means is ‘Would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback, wrapped in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not?’

The problem with criticism is that it challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged. As Daniel Goleman has noted, threats to our esteem in the eyes of others are so potent they can literally feel like threats to our very survival.

Schwartz cites three ways that feedback, which is often necessary in all kinds of relationships, goes wrong.

  1. When it’s more about me than you. “Any time we provide feedback with the goal of getting someone to better meet our needs, rather than being responsive to theirs, it’s unlikely to prompt the desired outcome.”
  2. When we don’t “hold the other person’s value in the process. Even the most well-intentioned criticism will, more often than not, prompt us to feel our value is at risk, and under attack.” That leads to defensiveness.
  3. When we “assume that we’re right about whatever it is we’re inclined to say.” Feedback giving works better when it’s more “in a spirit of humble exploration rather than declaration, dialogue rather than monologue, curiosity rather than certainty.”

Adam Grant (Medium), who has significant expertise in workplace management, points out that the constructive “feedback sandwich” idea doesn’t work well: “…(W)hen I looked at the data, I learned that the feedback sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it looks.” Either the receivers tend to be unable to hear the positives while dreading the negative or the opposite, the positives “drown out the negatives.”

“Giving a compliment sandwich might make the giver feel good, but it doesn’t help the receiver.” Grant offers four tips for giving helpful feedback:

  1. Explain why you’re giving the feedback: Recently, a team of psychologists was able to make feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with just 19 words: ‘I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them’”…
  2. Take yourself off a pedestal“: Similar to Schwartz’s emphasis on humility.
  3. Ask if the person wants feedback: Grant says “no one has ever declined”…
  4. Have a transparent dialogue, not a manipulative monologue.
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