Facing the Fires of Disagreement, Improvement, and Destructive Criticism
Destructive critics claim the moral high ground but their message is simple, do what I want. They pretend they want what’s best for others while they pursue what’s best for them.
Constructive critics want what’s best for others. In the past, friends told me my New York style sarcasm wasn’t always effective. A friend said, “Your sarcasm makes me uncomfortable.” His point came out on one of my trips to the West Coast a few years ago. It took a while but listening to criticism helped.
Not all criticism helps; some destroys.
Results of listening to destructive critics:
- Gun shy. You may pull back because stepping out invites criticism.
- Belligerence. You may plug your ears and close your eyes and aggressively push forward. I’ve chosen belligerence many times.
- Discouragement. You may hold anger in. Internalized anger always drains and discourages.
Distinguish between healthy disagreement, improvement, and destructive criticism.
- Disagreement – while sharing values and vision – is healthy. It usually centers on method and strategy.
- Accepting improvements is a humility issue. Can you listen to the voice of those who want to make you better?
- Destructive criticism comes from individuals who don’t share your values. Listen and you lose yourself.
- Love and respect those who disagree with love and respect.
- Destructive critics grow intolerant. Your “failure” becomes justification for escalating push back.
- Friends show tolerance even as they point out improvements.
- Those who pull back from you aren’t committed to you or your vision; those who jump in are.
- Fearing the voice of critics always distracts focus and drains passion. “If we are spending time and energy focused inwardly, debating incessantly, gossiping, and scheming, then we are certainly not aligned.” Brenner in Share the Sandbox.”
- Listening to destructive critics pulls you back.
- Listening to constructive critics propels you forward.
- Don’t trust those who criticize you behind your back.
How do you distinguish between healthy and unhealthy criticism?
What do you do to handle personal criticism?
Healthy criticism of ideas (not people) is expressed in constructive ways. It follows a formula something like this: “I disagree with (idea) because (reason) and I suggest (idea) as an alternative”.
Constructive dissent focused on ideas rather than people, always giving reasons and offering alternatives, is the engine of improvement.
Thank you Rick.
Your focus on ideas vs. individuals is well put.
Leaders sometimes create leader-centric organizations and when that happens they invite more personal criticism.
Props Rick for the “and I suggest” and “and offering alternatives” Far too much time is wasted trying to think of options only to have them shot down by the ‘yeah butters’ who salivate at the option of tearing downing, mistakenly thinking it builds them up.
Healthy criticism is future oriented–I’m giving you this feedback so that next time you do things better. Unhealthy criticism is past oriented—I’m giving you this feedback to put you down or to blame you for something that went wrong. The person getting the criticism can usually feel via the tone it is given whether it is future or past oriented.
The most healthy response to getting feedback, even destructive feedback, is to ask yourself if the criticism is true, trying to not be influenced by who gives you the feedback or the tone it is given–just, is there some truth in it? If you feel there is some truth in it, is it something you want to change because it is causing consequences you don’t like? If so, decide how to make some steps toward changing. If not, let it go and see if others give you similar criticism. It is not easy to be this mature.
Thank you Pete.
Nicely said: future vs past. It’s very easy to get stuck in the past.
The “trouble” with destructive feedback is there’s probably some truth to it. It can be hard to swallow. Additionally, adapting or adjusting to destructive critics seldom makes them happy. Adapt for your own values not others. If you adapt for others it’s likely you’ll be disappointed.
I was going to say “by the volume and the spray” based on recent destructive criticism I received. But I like your past/future idea better. After I left the office I thought to myself, “He’s been around longer than I have and I should settle down and consider his feedback with an open mind.” So I reviewed what he’d said and discovered that I couldn’t find in it any practical advice. It was as you say, a venting of frustration oriented toward the past, and lacked constructive value.
Dan, thanks for yet another great article, and such a timely one too! Your encouragement is most appreciated!
Hello, this is my first visit to your blog and I was surprised to see this very frank post.
I think any opinions should always be expressed politely. Otherwise, the tone will make it destructive even if the content doesn’t.
Accepting criticism comes with age and experience, of course provided that it is idealogical and not personal.
Thank you Pragati.
Surprised in a good way? Can’t tell if you are affirming or criticizing. 🙂
Thank you for leaving your first comment.. do come back again.
Welcome pargati, Dan’s middle name is ‘B Frank’ 😉
thanks pretty Frank , Doc
Thanks for always making me think and put my thoughts in words, Dan.
Unhealthy criticism is usually more a reflection of the feelings of inadequacy in someone else. Unhealthy criticism, if we don’t consider the source and keep it in perspective, can paralyze us.
Healthy criticism redirects us but also contains at least a kernel of encouragement. It may sting for a little bit, but as time passes we feel the truth in it. Healthy criticism usually comes from someone worthy of our respect.
Thank you Dauna.
My own life validates the idea that when I’m not happy with me I’m not happy with others.
Pete’s differentiation relative to orientation is an excellent observation. Making that observation inanimate (not personal) is also much more effective. The deflection shields come up immediately upon mention of “you” and the skilled leader will always find that impersonal, truthful criticism is the best methodology.
Thank you Dennis.
One useful tool in giving criticism is watching for push back… when you see push back…back off for a bit.
I love your point. Allow me to come at it from a little different angle. I’ve been in very few person to person leadership positions but I’ve spent most of my life working with horses. Horses are into-pressure animals. The must be taught to move away from pressure. You do this by gently pushing the horse’s rib cage with your spur or heal of your boot. With a horse you don’t “see” push back as much as you feel it. But the same concept applies. Much like you said; when you feel push-back… back off a bit.
It’s a learning process, accepting genuine, helpful criticism and not viewing all critique as destructive.
If someone comes to me and tells me I need to change something, but they are doing it in a loving, caring way, I’m much more likely to listen to them than someone who shouts out “You are stupid!”
But, as you say, I think most folks are like that.
One perspective that distingushes constructive and destructive criticism in my view, is considering the intent of the speaker. (Sometimes of course, that can be misperceived if we receive comments in the spirit in which they are intended.)
In any case, if a person provides criticism in a thoughtful way and with the intent of helping, that will be evident and experienced as constructive. On the other hand, if the intent is to admonish, put down etc. those sentiments will be conveyed and have a destructive impact .
When I feel myself reacting to someone being critical of me, I try to step back and as Dauna says hear the truth that may be in it. If I question the persons’ intent, I am apt to ask so that I don’t operate on false assumptions.
I think your “three results of listening to destructive critics” captures this but ….. that type of destructive criticism, when it is ingrained in the corporate culture, tends (in my opinion) to feed passive aggressive responses. I suppose the passive part is the people who pull back (1), the aggressive part is the belligerence (2) and the result of all of it is discouragement (3).
And in my experience much of that ties in to the lack of measurable goals and objectives, and lack of accountability. When people don’t know what they are being measured against, criticism feels unfounded and exceptionally painful.
“1.Love and respect those who disagree with love and respect.” Strong, powerful words that are going to stick with me. Thanks. As a person who holds some pretty strong opinions, a valuable lesson I learned, in some cases, the hard way, is that it’s totally ok when people don’t agree with me. In fact, that provides opportunities for lively discussion and also forces me to step back and think about the “why” behind my belief. It used to drive me crazy when my dad always asked “why”. I am now thankful for that small but important question.
Thanks for another excellent post, Dan! In my experience, I have found constructive criticism to be specific, given directly, and often publicly. Contrasting, destructive criticism is often too generic to work on, spoken behind the back, and sometimes without the willingness to “own” the complaint. I am painfully learning to discern and respond appropriately to each. You post is helpful in that process.
Healthy criticism is one whose goal is to push you forward despite your failure. Unhealthy ones are by those who are happy you made a mistake and also want to take credit for knowing better.
Criticism, whether healthy or not shouldn’t affect us. It should make us think and improve wherever possible, as well as ignore the ones meant to push us down.
The smoke and mirrors of skilled destructive criticism often easily conceal discoverable nuggets of truth that can inflame on many levels and, as others have noted, misdirects and wastes time, energy, resources and our short lives. The challenge may be to just uncover and pocket the nugget and move on to ‘grade’ the gem later.
Inward focus can be productive to achieve alignment, however, often is not the case when the driver is entrenched in reverse, self serving criticism. So, the tense of the experience and verbiage vein is important, if it is mostly past focused (and perseverative), it may a negative agenda. If it is true ‘lessons learned’ and future focused, there may be more value in that vein and worth mining a bit more.
And your observation Dan, about friends showing tolerance as they suggest improvement, perhaps a twist is that they show tolerance as they work with you to improve…more of a mutuality approach.
Great stuff for a Friday, thanks all!
Dan, I love the line: “Destructive criticism comes from individuals who don’t share your values.” I love the line, hate that it happens. I let this bother me so much early in my career. I’d usually border on belligerence and discouragement. I’m better today, but it’s still tough when running into those same people from the past. It’s hard not to listen to them, but gets easier with time. Thanks for the great article.
I had a bad boss, once. He was mean and destructive and he wrought havoc on our organization till being transferred to my company’s version of Siberia. But his boss (my ‘Big Boss’) who knew the situation but couldn’t do much about it, advised me just to learn as much as I could and leave the rest of his words behind. So I take criticism like that, now… like a yard sale, pick it up, examine it, put it down or buy it. And I tender my own criticisms and ideas to others like that, when possible. Bad bosses make you forget one has agency in one’s own actions and decisions. That’s bad news for any company
How do you distinguish between healthy and unhealthy criticism?
In a nutshell: years of experience. haha
For me, I have found that discerning between the two is based on who is delivering the criticism, the manner in which it is being delivered, and how I feel as it is being delivered.
Healthy criticism is received best from someone you know genuinely cares about you and has your best interests at heart. Their motive and intent of care and concern can be heard and felt. Their desire is to help build up rather then tear down.
Unhealthy criticism is basically emotional abuse for the sole purpose of tearing down the other person. More apt to put people on the defensive. Instead of hearing what is being said or finding any truth to it, most people wind up using the energy to protect themselves from what feels like an attack. Instead of something helpful.
For me, I’ve handled criticism in various ways in my life depending on the person delivering it. I’ve had a more difficult time receiving destructive criticism from those I was closest to. I was more prone to internalizing it in a destructive manner. Which did not help me at all.
I’ve experienced all 3 of your results of destructive criticism at various stages of my life. Very true!
Your list of observations I have found to be true as well.
I’d add a caveat to #4 though. In some cases, someone pulling back isn’t because they aren’t on the same side. It may simply be that they’ve tried to communicate and met resistance. So they back off until the other person is ready. It’s actually respecting the space of another in certain cases. If that makes sense.
Good post Dan.
I think the key line in this post is this: “Distinguish between healthy disagreement, improvement, and destructive criticism.” And that requires talent and discernment or a trusted advisor giving sage advice.
So essential to be able to discern between the constructive and the destructive, and also I believe, a third category: the innocent destructive. This is the individual who while positively motivated to help, is clueless about the case, and proceeds to offer “helpful criticism” regardless. A sheep in wolfes clothing?
Finally, your point about having the humility to accept constructive criticism. Boy do I struggle with this one, but I’ve learnt that when you don’t react, count to ten, and then go away and think about it, your ability to take onboard that criticism can make all the difference.
While most of us dislike criticism (I know I do), great leaders tap into the opportunities that criticism provides. However, one critical aspect is to distinguish between healthy criticism and destructive criticism. Excellent, as always, my friend.