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The gift of constructive criticism

Giving and receiving feedback is a key part of working in a team, whether as a professional colleague, a volunteer contributor or a friend.  It gives us the opportunity to see ourselves as others see us, to identify our blind spots, and become better at what we do.

However, it doesn’t always go as planned.  Even otherwise accurate criticism, when delivered without appropriate care, can have the opposite effect.  It makes us feel defensive and undervalued, and gives us no incentive to change our behavior.  It can distract us away from our own problems, and lead us to focus on the person giving us feedback instead.

Here are some practical techniques which I have found to make a positive difference in giving and receiving criticism:

  • Ask questions: Don’t assume that you already know what the problem is.  Often, you don’t.
  • Provide context: It’s easy to focus too much on the problem at hand, and neglect to put it in perspective.  If you only ever hear from me when something is wrong, you probably won’t receive my feedback with openness and acceptance.  Therefore, try to present criticism in the context of the bigger picture.  Take the opportunity to share your overall view of the situation, particularly where it’s good, before analyzing what’s wrong with it.  Many promote the simple idea of a “sandwich” which surrounds criticism on both sides with positive messages, though I think it’s more important to provide relevant perspective than to simply balance positive and negative commentary.  Contrast “This function is buggy and should be rewritten” with “My understanding of this module is that it should work this way, and for the most part, it seems to, but this function doesn’t work the way I expect, and it seems like a bug to me.”
  • Explain why: If you feel that a change is needed, provide rationale for it.  You may have already worked out for yourself what is wrong and how to fix it, but if I haven’t been a part of that process, I won’t understand why it seems important to you that I change what I’m doing.  Therefore, take a moment to explain the benefits of  your proposed change from my point of view.  “I suggest doing it this way, because…”
  • Suggest how: It may not be obvious to me how to implement the change you’ve proposed, and this can give the impression that you’re oversimplifying the situation, or don’t understand what you’re asking me to do.  Note that it’s usually appropriate to ask first whether I want this type of help, as unsolicited advice may be unwelcome.  Contrast “You never answer my emails” with “Are you having trouble keeping up with the volume of email you receive?  I have a similar problem, and what worked for me was…”
  • Show support: Position yourself firmly on the same side, not in opposition.  The problem is the enemy, and you should aim to work cooperatively with your colleague to address it.  Make sure they know that they’re not on their own, that you’re available to follow through and work with them to improve the situation.  Again, make sure you have their permission to help.  Contrast “You really need to fix this” with “If you want, we can try this together next time, and see if the new approach works better.”

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 24, 2008 at 14:57

Posted in Uncategorized

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7 Responses

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  1. Sounds like that was aimed at the reply to Aaron’s post. Sounds like good advice.


    December 24, 2008 at 15:37

  2. Thanks for the feedback. It wasn’t in response to anything in particular. I started writing it about a month ago and just got around to finishing and posting it.


    December 24, 2008 at 17:07

  3. This is so true where people work in diverse teams and environments. I rather listen to somebody that bring me a solution together with what he see as being wrong rather than somebody that always criticize without ever contributing solutions.

    On whether we always should get permission to provide help … hmmm do not know if I agree 100% here since sometimes people need help without them knowing they need help. And at other time they know they need help but do not want to accept since they believe it show some form of weakness from there side.

    In the end to be successful in any team environment is for each part to contribute so that the whole is bigger/better than the individual parts.



    December 24, 2008 at 17:38

  4. Thanks – bookmarked for future reference.

    Vadim P.

    December 25, 2008 at 00:00

  5. Good suggestions, but what if the ubuntu server team does not want to listen anyhow??


    January 10, 2009 at 17:33

  6. Thank you so much for this article. I sent this to a freind of mine who was always being critical and never really being positive toward me. He always said he was giving Constructive Criticism and didn’t understand why i would automatically get so defensive. Because of this article, he realized that he was being really harsh and he now understands why i was never receptive to his “help and suggestions.” Thanks a Million!


    January 27, 2009 at 21:14

  7. I really like this article, especially the “provide context” bullet. Your concrete example at the end of that bullet is very useful. You use “I” language rather than “You” language which I believe is key to great feedback. People are much more prone to accept feedback when said this way.

    My blog focuses on evaluations. It is geared primarily around Toastmasters as they provide a way to practice giving feedback on a weekly basis.


    John Goalby

    February 23, 2009 at 20:01

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