We are all critics. We critique restaurants on Yelp, books on Amazon, and each other with the tap (or not) of the Like button on Facebook. We critique ourselves in the mirror and in our bank balance. Heaven help me, I’ve critiqued my husband for the way he folds a shirt and my son for the way he holds a fork.
This sort of criticism – the judging, the running commentary on all things – reminds me of being an English Literature major in college in the early ‘90s. Literary criticism was, at that time and in that place, all about deconstruction. The approach was to break a piece down to its bits, to examine the fragments for the real meaning below the meaning, the meaning that the author didn’t even know was there. Individual words weren’t the bricks in a sturdy literary structure, they were the cracks into which you could wedge your own judgement, breaking the pieces apart to expose an author’s hopes and prejudices and darkest meanings. It strikes me later (because at the time I found this work very profound) that what I was doing with my lit classes was criticism with the intent to tear down, rather that reading with the intent to connect and understand.
Our criticism of each other, at work, can feel the same way: as a tool to break down and break apart, rather than as a tool to build up and understand. I don’t simply mean that criticism hurts because it is de-structive rather than con-structive, but that when we use criticism as a tool we pull apart the relationships that are foundational to good work. We don’t often use criticism to people’s faces – instead, like a literature student with her book and highlighter who will never face the author, we criticize each other to our peers. It can feel very honest, very helpful, as a way of sharing experience or even as an attempt to get feedback into the right hands. But the difference between deconstruction-style criticism and useful feedback is, at its heart, judgement. That is why it is easier to criticize at a distance, and why criticism isn’t inherently helpful: criticism is a way of saying “I see your cracks. I judge you. I know better than you.”
So how do you make sure you are engaging in helpful feedback, and not in workplace-deconstruction tactics? A few things matter: audience, intent, tone, and language. I’ll take them one by one.
Audience: If you are talking about someone’s performance or attitude or behavior in a de-constructing way, and it isn’t to that person directly, you probably aren’t engaging in feedback. It may be something else legitimate, like reporting or documenting or asking for help, but it should give you pause.
Intent: Come on, you know if your intention is really to poke someone in their tender spots or to help them grow. If your intentions are mixed – when someone really rubs you the wrong way, for example – just take a little extra time to think. Is there another way besides saying/writing to get your message across? Can you lead by example instead?
Tone: Whether in writing or face to face, a critical, breaking-apart tone is obvious to the receiver, but not always to the speaker. And the greater the power imbalance between receiver and speaker, the greater the likelihood that the receiver will feel any underlying note of judgement.
Language: See, I still am that Lit major at heart. Words matter. I’ve said that criticism comes from judgement, and judgement is the assertion that I know better than you, that I see your flaws, and that I think your worth is defined by your flaws. When you are trying to avoid being critical in a difficult discussion, watch your use of “you,” and also of your use of words that attribute value. For example, you could say to your colleague “You did a bad job on that presentation.” Or you could say “That presentation had multiple typos and the last slide was upside down.” The first is criticism, a judgement of someone’s worth (a person who does a bad job) and the second is pretty straight forward, if painful, feedback.
And if you are on the receiving end of criticism? If what passes for feedback feels like hammer blows, or the constant tap tap tap of a chisel picking away at your cracks, I am sorry. I wish I had magic words, or an anti-deconstruction tool. Essentially, though, you have a couple of options.
Give Feedback. Yes, if you are being criticized rather than being given helpful feedback, you should treat the offender as you would like to be treated. Sorry. This is a time to channel your couple’s therapist and frame your feedback to the critical person in terms of how their behavior makes you feel. “When you told me I did a bad job I felt terrible. It made me feel like I won’t ever be able to succeed here. I think I would have been able to hear the feedback better if it was less personal.”
Refuse to be Deconstructed. Whether you fall apart when someone hammers on you is partly in your control. Understanding whether the criticism is meant to pull you down – or is just a ham-fisted attempt at feedback – can help you stay upright. Generally people aren’t trying to do each other in. If you feel like someone is intentionally being hurtful excuse yourself and walk away, and provide feedback later. But if you are dealing with someone who simply communicates in a critical way, see if you can put up some mental defenses that prevent them from getting under your skin. Hum “I am a rock” under your breath and know that whatever else you might be, you are someone who can tell feedback from criticism, and you refuse to be undone by either.