Criticism that Counts

By John C. Maxwell
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Americans have a warped view of criticism. Unfortunately, most of us see criticism almost exclusively in a negative light. We dish it out tactlessly, use it to tear down rivals, and attack others with it even when we have no authority to do so.

It certainly doesn’t help that we are inundated with poor examples of criticism in the media. For starters, consider American Idol’s British judge, Simon Cowell. It’s not uncommon for Simon’s scathing criticisms to elicit tears from contestants. His words are given sincerely, but heartlessly. Watching Simon, it’s as if he relishes finding faults in another’s imperfections.

Election season paints another ugly picture of criticism. Politicians wield it like an ax to cut down their opponents. Instead of debating ideas in a civil forum, too often politicians lower themselves into a mudslinging contest.

Another media avenue, the blogosphere, has become criticism central in America. Bloggers attack the character of leaders they don’t know and rail against decisions made in circumstances they could never understand. Far too frequently, their inflammatory tone escalates conflict without adding any substantial value to the interplay of ideas.

Criticism defined

Given the less than stellar models of criticism prevailing in society, we need a healthy definition of criticism along with practical guidance for giving and receiving it. In an April 1st article for BusinessWeek, Dr. Bruce Weinstein gives us exactly that. Here’s how he describes the value of criticism:

“The goal of true criticism is to help someone be the best they can be …When criticism is done appropriately, the person who has been criticized will understand what he or she has done wrong and will feel inspired to make a change for the better. Not only should we not avoid being criticized, we should embrace criticism because it is the only way we can continue to grow professionally and personally.”

The following practical tips are intended to flesh out the ways we can begin to embrace and wisely employ criticism as leaders.

When giving criticism

Encouragement helps criticism to land

Before a pilot lands an aircraft, she goes through a series of procedures to make the plane touch down as smoothly as possible. The pilot gently drops altitude, gradually cuts back on speed, and lowers landing gear at just the right moment. If these steps are handled incorrectly, the ride is certain to be turbulent and may end up in disaster.

For criticism to “land” well, it must be preceded by encouragement. Leaders deafen their people to criticism when they neglect to encourage them regularly. If leaders are silent after victory but outspoken during defeat, then team morale plummets. It’s difficult to stay open to suggestions for improvement under what feels like a constant barrage of negativity. [...]

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