Criticism vs. Feedback: Sometimes We Forget the Difference

By Florence Stone

It’s been a tough day. You’ve been working on a report, only to be interrupted, then interrupted in completing these tasks by further interruptions. As you review some figures, you see an obvious mistake by one of your staff members. Exhausted from a hard day, you walk over to the employee to show him the mistake. But in a few minutes you are shouting at him, letting everyone within earshot hear all about how incompetent you think he is.

Criticism or feedback? Clearly it is criticism, and since you were blunt and brutal, it qualifies as verbal abuse. Feedback, on the other hand, is a calm discussion about how work was done and, if needed, could have been done better.

Some managers use the term “constructive criticism” in place of the word “feedback,” but criticism is criticism is criticism. By its nature, it isn’t constructive. Certainly, if you tell an employee, “You are never on time. This is really irresponsible. Unless you get your act together, you will be gone from here,” isn’t constructive. It puts cracks in the foundations of any team you are building.

Jenny Rogers, author of Influencing People, points out some responses from employees on the receiving end of such criticism:

  • He made me feel like a stupid, two-year-old child.
  • I felt really frightened.
  • I wondered whether he would follow up on his threat.
  • I wanted revenge IMMEDIATELY!
  • I answered back I didn’t care about the consequences. I thought, “You can wave goodbye to any thought of loyalty whatsoever!”

Rogers describes some of the differences between feedback and criticism:

Feedback is designed to improve performance, whereas criticism is too often a means of unloading anger. Delivery often reflects this. Most important, whereas feedback is tough talk about an issue, criticism too frequently is tough talk about the person. Further, feedback is a form of coaching in which there is a search for underlying causes and solutions, while criticism is solely finger-pointing and a search for a scapegoat.

Perfecting feedback skills is comparable to perfecting coaching skills. So if you want to improve the quality of your feedback:

Give it as close to the incident as possible, good and bad. That means praise should be offered as soon as it is due; likewise, performance problems should be addressed once evident to quote Roebuck, “this nips 'bad habits' in the bud.”

Be specific, and discuss not only the behavior, but the impact of the behavior on work output and co-worker performance. Look for opportunities to offer positive feedback. Employees need to receive good feedback as well as negative feedback. Deliver feedback in small bites rather than one huge meal.

Florence Stone is Director of Membership Programs at AMA and is responsible for content on MWorld. She is the author of several books, including Coaching, Counseling & Mentoring.

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