Understanding the Value and Proper Use of Criticism

When done properly, constructive critiques can be opportunities for growth.
Published: August 29, 2011

If you have a hard time accepting criticism gracefully, don’t feel alone. Common wisdom suggests that employees must develop a “thick skin,” or there’s always the Latin version: “Illegitimi non carborundum,” which translates roughly to: don’t let those born out of wedlock wear you down. That may be good advice for persons who find themselves under the withering verbal fire of a bully. From the standpoint of personal growth and productive communication, this thinking falls short of the mark.

There is a good book on customer service, entitled “A Complaint Is a Gift.” It develops several important ideas: First, problems cannot be fixed until they are recognized and evaluated. Second, for everyone willing to give you the gift of a complaint, there will be 10 other customers who will suffer the same disappointment and just walk away.

Criticism can provide valuable opportunities for personal growth and improved work product. Learning how to extract the value from criticism has been a long term project for me. Pats on the head feel nice, but they seldom result in needed change. The highest performers that I have known actually seek out and embrace criticism. 

Intention of the critic is another important factor in communication. Criticism will be accepted and utilized if the person receiving it knows beyond a doubt that the critic believes in them and wants them to succeed. I remember being criticized harshly by my high school football coach. I started to walk off with my tail between my legs, when he stopped me, lowered his voice and said, “I yell because I know what you are capable of delivering. Worry more if I stop yelling.” 

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Was yelling a good communication technique, probably not, but I accepted it from my coach because I knew without question that he cared about me as an individual.

We’ll wrap this up with some general rules for giving and receiving criticism in ways that will benefit your organization. Actually, rules may be a bit strong, let’s go with guidelines or maybe just thoughts. 

Thoughts for thoughtful criticism:

  • Avoid criticizing when you are angry. Anger displaces reason and unreasoned criticism seldom achieves a positive result.
  • Criticism should never be used as a cathartic exercise to relieve the tension of the person offering it.
  • Avoid yelling, unless you are a fair minded high school football coach in the early sixties.
  • Criticism that embarrasses or makes the recipient feel small will prove to be counterproductive for individual and organizational growth.
  • Criticism should be offered with the single goal of helping the recipient to become successful.
  • Criticism may require time for it to be absorbed and accepted. The recipient may need a break for their ego to relax enough for the message to be absorbed.
  • Criticism should involve two-way communication. Be willing to listen and develop this as a process. All of us are smarter than one of us.
  • If criticism involves a problem, involve the recipient in the process of solving it. Differentiate between one time problems and problematic patterns.

Thoughts for persons receiving criticism:

  • Criticism stings; accept it and let it pass. Focus on listening carefully, asking clarifying questions, and understanding the content and intent of the message.
  • Lower your defenses. Avoid counter attacks, excuses and explanations until you fully understand the criticism. Think in terms of solutions and positive outcomes.
  • Program yourself to look for the value in the message, those things with potential to improve performance. See this as a gift and an opportunity, never waste it.
  • Expand your view to determine whether the criticism involves an isolated problem or a pattern. Work carefully to find long term solutions.
  • If criticism is not readily offered, seek it out. Performance is improved through small incremental changes. Turn critics into partners for your success.
  • Make your critics feel comfortable in offering advice. Honor them by listening carefully. This is a win-win opportunity.
  • Remember that gold is found in mud. It takes a little work to get at the real thing.


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