Be constructive


In my previous post, I shared thoughts about handling professional criticism. In the days and weeks following, I began to think about what it means to offer “constructive” criticism. The more I reflect, the more I realize I’m not always very good at it. That being the case, take anything I have to say here with a heavy grain of salt.

I wish I had a dollar for each time I’ve had a conversation similar to the following:

CLIENT: “I don’t like this.”
ME: “Ok. What can I do to make it better?”
CLIENT: “I’m not sure, but I’ll know it when I see it!”

Feedback like this only leaves both parties frustrated. The client isn’t getting what they want and it’s difficult for me to address the concerns without clear guidance.

When I think about the people that have had the biggest impact on my career, the individuals that come to mind are those that were best at offering productive reviews of my work. I find great value in being able to borrow someone else’s brain to better my efforts. As I attempt to learn from those encounters, there are three things I feel go a long way to making criticism constructive.

Be specific

The most valuable feedback, in my opinion, is specific. It demonstrates to me that you’ve taken the time to understand my work and consider it from a perspective other than my own. If you’re unable to be detailed in your critique, it’s possible that the stated objectives need to be refined. Or, maybe more time needs to be spent discussing and digesting the proposed solution.

Over the years, I’ve found statements similar to the following to be very helpful:

“In this passage, you’ve understated your position. Take time to enunciate your thoughts more clearly.”

“When speaking in public, your presentations would come alive with more humor and personal anecdotes.”

“You have a tendency to over-sing this verse. Imagine you’re quietly lulling your child to sleep.”

“This design lacks a clear hierarchy. Let’s identify a main focal point and eliminate unneeded elements.”

The preceding statements identify something specific that needs improvement and provide direction to address that concern. Having that clear starting point gives me a chance to understand how my efforts are being received on your end. I’m not asking you to do my work for me. However, I do need to have a clear understanding about how you perceive my work in relation to the stated objectives.

This may all sound very obvious, but I’m surprised at how often I’ve had to dig details out of my clients about their objections. I’ll be the first one to try to find a better way to solve a problem when the opportunity presents itself. But it’s difficult to address your concerns if you’re unable or unwilling to specify the problem at hand. Which leads me to my next point…

Be honest

If you’re in a position to provide feedback as a client or manager, don’t hold back for the sake of feelings or ego. All you’ll manage to do is breed dissatisfaction on your end when you ultimately settle for a result that doesn’t suit your needs. Or, I’ll get frustrated when I receive multiple revision requests that make me feel like I’m shooting at a moving target.

This is also true when I come to you as a colleague for a peer review. Be brutally honest. Shame on me if I ask for a critique and then take offense at your input.

This is easier said than done. Honesty is not always the easy route. A certain amount of tact or charm is necessary to ensure your comments are heard (which, admittedly, is where I have trouble at times).

Be a partner

Criticism sounds different coming from someone you trust. To be candid, I’m much more apt to take your comments to heart if I know I can trust you. I can’t stress this point enough. My only advice here is take time to invest in those around you. Building a respectful relationship stimulates better results on both sides of the table. When I have a healthy rapport with a  client or manager, it’s easier to understand how they approach a project which enables me to make better use of their feedback. When my clients know that I have their best interests in mind, they’re more willing to take creative risks together.

A good way to foster that connection is to ask thoughtful questions. What was the thought process behind this creation? What strategic advantages do you see in this approach? Is this solution innovative or an incremental step from what’s come before? Great questions provide better context and understanding with which to frame your feedback.

Lastly, creativity is not a limited commodity controlled by a select few. When you hire someone to take on a creative task, get your hands dirty through the process and offer yourself as a resource. It’s amazing how a simple spark of inspiration can explode into a brilliant, creative idea.

What are you doing to collaborate more effectively with those around you? Have you been honest and specific with your feedback?

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