Constructive criticism is useful, while destructive criticism just serves to break someone down… right?
Unfortunately, our feelings don’t always reflect that reality.
For many people, any criticism – whether it’s objectively useful or not – feels like a personal attack. It raises fears of, “What if I’m just not good enough to make the cut?” and often spirals into, “I’m never going to be able to do this”.
If you’re a supervisor or manager invested in someone’s growth, this is the exact opposite of what you want to happen.
Fear of not being good enough usually causes people to retreat, rather than to seek out ways to improve. They’re left demotivated, not to mention discouraged, and their performance suffers as a result.
If you want to give constructive criticism that inspires people to improve, you need to assuage these fears. But before you can speak to them, let’s understand why people have them.
It comes down to mindset.
Dr Carol Dweck’s research showed that in a fixed mindset, some people believe “I either have it or I don’t.” As in: I can’t change how much of this ability I have.
Similarly, a person in a fixed mindset may believe that their external successes (or failures) reflect their value as a person: “If I’m good enough, my performance will be good enough. If my performance isn’t good enough, I’m not a good enough person…”
Any criticism is going to feel very hurtful if we don't believe it's possible to change. Only when we believe we can change, will we be able to integrate negative feedback.
For criticism to be constructive and growth-promoting, you must make it clear that you believe the person can change.
This means facilitating a growth mindset – the idea that ability is changeable through learning, and performance depends on the strategy you used, rather than your personal value.
You can do this in these 4 ways:
1. Be sure to stay far away from any language that personalizes the criticism.
Saying, “You are not assertive enough” is personal. Instead, use language that talks about a strategy or a state, “You haven't been assertive."
2. Add a "yet".
This simple word embeds the possibility of change in your message.
Notice the difference between: "You haven't been assertive," verses, "You haven't been as assertive as we'd like yet."
3. Direct their attention to different strategies for change.
To cement the idea that they can change, ask, “What’s one thing you can do to practice being more assertive in future?” This keeps their attention on the future, and forces them to find evidence that change is possible.
4. Say this magic phrase.
Research by psychologists David Yeager and Geoff Cohen found that simply following your criticism up with, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations and I know you can reach them,” led to twice as many students taking an opportunity for resubmission than those who were simply told they were getting feedback so they'd know where they went wrong.
This phrase speaks to our most common fears. It says, “I know you’re good enough, and I know you can learn.”
As a result, the individuals in the study decided that it wasn’t really about their worth at all, and that they could learn to use a better strategy in future.
They felt hopeful, so they were motivated to improve.