Working Wounded: Constructive Criticism

DEAR WOUNDED: I would like to make suggestions on how to improve things at work, but I don't want to get the reputation as a troublemaker or whiner. Is there a way to offer criticism and not look like a jerk?

ANSWER: Your e-mail reminded me of a guy who stole a fire department rescue boat in Nashville, Tenn. Just as police were closing in on him, the thief jumped overboard. He drowned because there were no rescue people on the scene to save him. On second thought, maybe stealing the town's rescue boat wasn't such a smart idea.

Workplace criticism is like those rescue workers. You want people to be in a position to do something after they hear your criticism. I've listed some strategies below. For more, check out "The Art of Constructive Criticism" by Hoover and DiSilverstro (Wiley, 2005).

Do you control your emotions? I'll admit, I'm a big passion guy at work. I often wear my emotions on my sleeve (and every other part of my clothing, according to the people I've worked with). But when it comes to criticism, it's important to be calm and collected as you offer it. Why? Because chances are the criticism itself will get their attention, adding an emotional outburst tends to turn people off.

Do you act professionally? The classic example is to criticize your boss during a staff meeting. Professionalism dictates that whenever you criticize "up," you do it in private. Making a business case also involves bringing along evidence to support your claims. Your intuition is important, but it's not usually enough.

Do you define your expectations? The easiest way to blow off criticism is when we believe that it is unrealistic. So it's important to be sure that your critique is grounded in reality. Explain what your expectations are going in, and be prepared to defend them. This is the best way that I know to get everyone working on the same page.

Do you seek to keep things positive? The surest way to keep people listening as you offer criticism is to bring along both the problem and a solution to address it -- or even better, a couple of solutions so they can explore a range of options. Sure, this isn't always possible, but the key is to not focus all of your efforts on the critique, but to also put effort into trying to reduce or eliminate it.

Do you give ground? People don't tend to support people for whom it's their way or the highway. Yet many of us forget this and push single-mindedly for our solution. I've found that it not only helps to gain support and incorporate ideas from others, it usually makes for a better solution when more minds get involved.

Use these tips and criticize away, but stop short of going overboard. You don't want to make it so no one will be willing to jump in to help you.

We'd like to hear your strategy for criticizing people at work. I'll give an autographed copy of "Working Wounded: Advice that adds insight to injury" (Warner, 2000) to the best submission. Send your entry, name & address via: or via e-mail: Entries must be received by Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Online Ballot and Contest

Here are the results from a recent online ballot:

What statement best describes your approach to work?
   I say no all the time at work, 0 percent
   I only say yes at work, 3.4 percent
   Other people make the calls where I work, 40.2 percent
   I sometimes say no at work, 56.3 percent

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