The Difference Between Constructive and Destructive Criticism

Doug Staneart  |  September 3, 2023
last updated

The Difference Between Constructive and Destructive Criticism I have to admit that I am uncomfortable when given constructive criticism. You know why? Because I’m human. Guess what… You are too. (You are also human.) So, if most people are uncomfortable receiving constructive feedback, is it really constructive? In addition, is there a real difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism?

Well, the answer is both “yes” and “no.” Any type of criticism can be destructive to a relationship no matter the motives of the giver. In this post, though, we will cover some things that you can do, other than criticize, to help someone else correct mistakes. Basically, we will cover a number of constructive ways to influence others that won’t seem to the other person like a personal attack.

From the Receiver’s Standpoint, There Is No Difference Between Constructive and Destructive Criticism.

Most people believe that constructive criticism is good and destructive criticism is bad. However, from the receiver’s standpoint, both comments cause pain, frustration, or embarrassment. So, both are really detrimental to the professional relationship with the other person. From the other person’s perspective, no matter what kind of criticism is delivered, it still hurts.

So why do people believe that in some cases, the negative remark may be positive? The answer is what I call the “Relationship Bank Account.” The point of view of the feedback recipient is determined by the relationship — not the form of criticism.

When you are on the receiving end of criticism, you rarely stop to think, “Is this person giving me constructive or destructive criticism?” Instead, you’ll likely have one of three responses.

The Relationship Bank Account Determines If a Comment Is Constructive or Destructive.

The Relationship Bank Account Determines If a Comment Is Constructive or Destructive You have a Relationship Bank Account with every, single person that you have ever interacted with. When you have a positive experience with another person, a deposit goes into this account. However, when you have a negative experience, a withdrawal is made from the account. In most cases, these withdrawals are much bigger than the deposits. So, to maintain a positive balance, we have to make many deposits to counteract just a few withdrawals.

The way a person responds to criticism depends more on the account balance than how you deliver the comment.

For instance, if you years of positive interactions with a person and deliver a single critical comment, the critique will still hurt. However, because of the positive balance in the account, the person may use the negative criticism to grow. So healthy relationships allow employee performance to improve even with constructive criticism. The main point here, though, is that the professional growth didn’t happen because of the positive feedback. The feedback wasn’t positive at all. The change happened because of the relationship.

On the other hand, if you have a negative balance, the person will likely respond to the same comment aggressively. The kind of feedback didn’t change. All that changed was that the recipient of the criticism took it the wrong way. Critiques given with a positive relationship bank account are seen as a valuable tool for professional development. However, the same comment delivered to someone with a negative balance in the account is seen as toxic behavior that leads to a toxic environment.

In both cases, it doesn’t matter so much how you deliver the content. The reaction will be determined by the relationship you have developed with the person which creates a foundation for developing an effective and high-performance team.

A Person’s Past Experience with Conflict Can Cause Constructive Criticism to Backfire.

All of us have different histories and experiences that shape our view of conflict On the extreme, someone who has lived with an abusive parent or spouse may see even positive comments is critical. In other cases, people who have a very supportive family structure may see critiques as positive no matter what.

Years ago, I was training two new instructors at the same time. At times, during the process, I would offer a tip to help each of these instructors grow. Both of these people had had similar positive interactions with me for months. The relationships with each were very solid. As we got to the end of the training process, though, I offered a few fine-tuning tips to each. My technique was to start with praise. “I just want to tell you how impressed that I am with how well you are doing in the training process.” Next, I added a constructive critique. “Even though you are getting good results when you _______, in some cases that may not work like you want. Have you thought about trying ______ instead?”

One instructor responded, “That is brilliant. I never thought of that. I will give it a try.” However, the other got immediately defensive. “I’ll do it any way you want it. Whatever you say, boss.” (I know that sounds positive, but I could tell by the way that she responded that I had harmed her confidence.)

A Few Simple Ways to Point Out Mistakes without Criticizing.

After a couple of experiences in my life like that one, I began to change the way that I coached people. Below are a few simple ways to point out mistakes made by others that might give you better results.

  1. Give a Little Warning Before You Deliver Any Critical Coaching.
  2. Ask Questions to Let the Other Person Save Face.
  3. Admit a Similar Mistake that You Made, First.

Give a Little Warning Before You Deliver Any Critical Coaching.

Give a Little Warning Before You Deliver Any Critical Coaching No matter what type of feedback that you give, good communication skills are important. You may have good intentions, but if your tone of voice is too stern or you are showing negative body language, even the most positive comments can be seen as critical feedback. The best way to counter this is to soften the blow with a warning ahead of time that positive criticism is important for personal development.

I typically give a person a little warning before I do any critical coaching, though.

For instance, I might start with, “In my experience, I’ve noticed that the best teachers are the ones who are constantly looking to improve.” At this point, I will often point out two or three things that the teacher-in-training did really well. Then, I will finish by saying something like, “Just so you know, from time to time I may see you doing something that I have realized is a mistake because I made the same mistake years ago. In those situations, would you prefer that I mention them to you?”

If the person says, “Yes,” I don’t launch into a litany of criticisms, though. Often, I will reply with something like, “I haven’t noticed anything yet, but if I do, I don’t want you to think I’m being overly-critical.”

This first step before the negative comments is important to create open communication. It helps our coaching have more of a positive impact versus a negative impact.

Ask Questions to Let the Other Person Save Face.

Instead of starting with constructive or destructive criticism, ask questions first. Something like, “Since we are always looking to improve, did anything happen during the process that wasn’t optimal? If you could improve any part, what would you want to fix?” Wait for the answer, then ask what the person will do next time based on that thought.

For instance, let’s say that a direct-report missed a deadline. Instead of confronting the person and laying blame, try asking a question. “I know you were under the gun on that deadline. How did it all work out? Were you able to finish the project on time?” Most likely, the person will lay blame elsewhere. Then, a good coach can ask a follow-up question like, “I totally understand. I can see how that would create a challenge. What do you want to do in the future to make sure it doesn’t come back to bite you again?”

The main difference between constructive and destructive criticism is often the ability to let the other person save face.

Admit a Similar Mistake that You Made, First.

Admit a Similar Mistake that You Made One way to subtly let the other person see that he or she made a mistake is to tell a self-deprecating story. My dad used this technique with me when I was younger. I use it as often as possible when I coach my kids or team members. It works surprisingly well in most cases.

Instead of just pointing out someone else’s error, tell how you made a similar mistake. So, if I want to help a team member keep from missing deadlines, I can use the following example.

Years ago, I received a call from a long-term client who had a meeting the following day with his boss. He needed a proposal from me for that meeting. I had just finished teaching a class in Boston and had to fly home. I also had a connecting flight in Philadelphia.

“Can you make sure I get the proposal by 8 AM in the morning?” asked my client.

I replied, “I’ll find a way to make it happen.”

However, neither of my flights had wifi. And the layover in Philadelphia was very tight. I ended up getting back home after 2 AM. I created the proposal on the plane, though. So all I really had to do was connect to the internet to send the proposal. It was a huge file, though. So, I connected my laptop, hit send, and waited. When it looked like the email was gone, I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up, and the email was still in my outbox. It didn’t finish sending.

I worked so hard, but I didn’t focus on the details. As a result, I missed out on a big opportunity and let my client down. Pay attention to deadlines so you don’t disappoint your clients as well.

Be Careful Using Constructive Criticism in Employee Evaluations.

When you take corrective actions like the story above and let the employee save face, annual evaluations are easier as well. The most important difference between constructive and destructive criticism in employee evaluations is for there to be no surprises in the process. If you are a great coach, an employee evaluation should be like an award ceremony not a funeral. Don’t wait to give feedback. Do your coaching throughout the year.

Give positive feedback whenever you can. In situations where you have to be critical, ask questions or tell a self-deprecating story. That way, when you get to the annual performance review, you won’t need to give negative feedback!

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author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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