Lucy, who constantly criticizes Charlie Brown in the comic strip “Peanuts,” is one of my favorite characters because she always says exactly what is on her mind.
Peeved at Charlie, she once told him, “You are a foul ball in the line drive of life.”
She is just as tough on her little brother Linus, who always has his security blanket clutched in one hand and his thumb resting safely in his mouth.
“Why are you always criticizing me?” Linus asks Lucy.
“Because I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults,” Lucy says.
“What about your own faults,” replies Linus?
Without hesitation, Lucy answers right back, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”
Criticism, even when offered as a helpful suggestion, is often unwelcome. It’s hard to accept that your efforts are unappreciated or fail to meet expectations.
One of my favorite sayings is, “No one ever kicks a dead dog,” which means you have to be doing something to get criticized. My point is not to take criticism personally. When a coach or a friend or a boss is criticizing you, that usually means they really care, and even though it may not feel like it, they want to help you.
Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “Criticism is something you can avoid easily – by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.”
Obviously that isn’t an option for anyone who wants to be successful in business or as a leader. Good leaders are active, and their actions frequently put them out front. Of course that often draws criticism.
Even when it is meant to be constructive, criticism is sometimes difficult to deliver effectively. When you have to correct a mistake or improve an employee’s performance, it is critical to get your message across without creating bigger problems.
Before you offer any criticism, think about what results or changes you need. Telling an employee, “You were totally ineffective,” may be accurate, but it doesn’t tell the employee what your expectations are. Your goal is to correct the problem, so think through what the employee needs to do differently.
Employees need to know exactly what they did wrong in order to improve. Explain the problem in precise terms: “You didn’t bring the right equipment, which meant you took longer than necessary to complete the work.”
Point out mistakes and problems, but don’t dwell on them too long. Then start talking about how the employee can improve.
When an employee’s performance improves, make a point of recognizing it. Reinforcing improvement will reduce the need for you to revisit the problem.
Ted Engstrom tells the story about a group of bright young men at the University of Wisconsin, who were blessed with remarkable literary talent: aspiring poets, novelists and essayists. They met regularly to read and critique each other’s work, which became progressively more contentious. So merciless were their criticisms that the members of this exclusive club called themselves the “Stranglers.”
The women of literary talent in the university started a club of their own, which they christened the “Wranglers.” They also shared their work with each other, but the criticism was softer and more positive, even encouraging.
Twenty years later, an alumnus of the university did a study of the successes of the Stranglers as opposed to the Wranglers. None of the Stranglers could claim any significant literary accomplishment. The Wranglers boasted six or more successful writers including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote “The Yearling.”
The talent and education levels were comparable, so why the difference? As Ted concluded, the Stranglers strangled, while the Wranglers highlighted the best, not the worst.
Successful leaders know better than to strangle, because they understand that results reflect their management skills. Constantly belittling or blaming means that either the employee isn’t a good fit, or that the criticism isn’t being delivered effectively.
Instead, good leaders follow the example of the Wranglers. Positive results start with a positive environment in which employees know that they will be treated with respect even when they make mistakes.
Consider the advice from the late Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay cosmetics: “Never giving criticism without praise is a strict rule for me. No matter what you are criticizing, you must find something good to say – both before and after. . . . Criticize the act, not the person.”
Mackay’s Moral: Constructive criticism should always build up, not tear down.