Effective Criticism

Criticism can be good. It can be a very healthy way to learn, to grow, to identify flaws in your system – either personal or professional.

And now, the internet sure gives us myriad ways to deliver said criticism without much forethought, in a flash, and without making it very helpful. It’s easy to bitch on Twitter or rant on your blog (and if blowing off steam is your goal alone, you can just ignore the rest of this post).

But if your criticism is being delivered really with the intent to change something or someone’s behavior, there are ways to get closer to that goal. For folks like me – brand representatives and community leaders – there are definitely elements of feedback that make it more useful, helpful, and likely to inspire action. Here are a few:

Avoid Sweeping Generalizations

We all get caught in the trap of ranting at a generic collective, as in “people don’t understand…”. The trouble is, we don’t usually think we belong in the group you’re referring to, and wide, sweeping generalizations suffer under scrutiny (it’s rare that everyone or everything with a particular label is guilty of the same behavior).That applies to issues as well as people. It’s hard not to do. It’s a human thing to do. I’m sure I do it more often than I’d like.

But if you’re delivering criticism with the intent to change something, take the time and thought to focus it in the direction – either people or topic wise – you mean for it to go. If you’re calling out marketing people in software, say so, and be specific about why they’re the culprits of whatever you’re talking about. If you’re referencing a failure of telephone support wait time, that’s more helpful than saying “your customer service sucks”.

Differentiate Instances and Patterns.

Everyone screws up once. Saying that someone sucks at something because they did it poorly one time isn’t a fair statement. Call people out for making mistakes if you wish, but try hard to differentiate between a single instance of bad judgment or operational failure, and the notion that Company X’s delivery time is atrocious, or that a particular person is a terrible gossip. Sometimes, a mistake is just that, and pointing it out constructively can prevent its repetition.

Passion Doesn’t Trump Decorum

Being upset or frustrated or angry doesn’t mean you can’t take a moment to collect your thoughts and express them like an adult. Criticism leveled calmly and with purpose will always be more effective than frustration fueled by irrationality and heat-of-the-moment anger. Ranting blindly rarely nets true, progressive results (and you catch more flies with honey than vinegar and all that jazz). Rant loudly and repeatedly as your MO, and it becomes far too easy to make a case to stop listening to you altogether.

Alternatives Speak Volumes

I never, ever mind someone telling me that they don’t agree with something I said or did. But it’s really hard for me to do it differently next time if I don’t have an idea of what your expectations are. If you find my blog posts dull, tell me how they’d be more useful for you. If my customer service isn’t meeting your expectations, what would improve that? This requires some thought on the part of the critic, but if your goal is to have the object of your criticism consider a change in action or behavior, pointing out the direction you’d prefer at least gives them something to consider and helps them understand your perspective.

Take It To the Source

It’s much easier and less uncomfortable to complain on your blog rather than give feedback directly to the person or company you intend it for. But if amended behavior is really your goal, find as direct a path as possible to express your feedback (even if that’s in addition to something you may post elsewhere). Take the extra moment to see if that company has a Twitter account, and reply directly to them instead of just ranting on your stream. Try an email to customer support or your company contact before you pop off on your blog. If it’s an individual that’s offended you, consider telling them so plainly, and explain why.

Yes, I totally understand that some processes in place for business feedback are lousy, cumbersome, and lacking humans on the other end. But sometimes, offering the critique directly to the source first can solve an issue much more quickly, or at least provide an opportunity for direct discussion, learning (on both sides) and better understanding. It’s worth a shot.

So, what else would you add? What makes feedback valuable to you when you receive it? What criticism helps you really understand the issues at hand? How do you deliver criticism and try to make it effective?

Effective Criticism

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