3 Ways People Suck At Criticism

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Feedback is very valuable - in business and in life. Criticism on the other hand can be non productive. Here's how to spot this toxic management!

I firmly believe you can learn a lot from your screw-ups. But you have to learn from mistakes to not repeat them, and that involves feedback, criticism and honest efforts to improve. Great mentors have an ability to give criticism that inspires, and I’ve worked with several in my career. I’ve felt very fortunate to wind up in an organization that talks very openly with me, and work with me towards bettering my career. Making a move to a place with strong management is one of the best moves you can make during your development.

There have also been a lot of jerks. Most of you probably don’t know who you are, but maybe by reading some of these points, you can give yourself some honest criticism. Yes, you can suck at giving feedback, and you should care. Terrible criticism creates animosity between people, closes down honest communication and kills the lessons people need to learn from their mistakes.

If you’re like any of the people below, you’re probably a jerk. So, stop being a jerk.

Group Shamers

Looking bad in front of peers is one of our biggest fears. So calling people out before the rest of the team quickly starts feeling like a group shaming. It might seem like an appropriate place to address a mistake because everyone is present, but you shouldn’t blindside someone with group criticism.

A private, one on one setting is the best place to discuss serious mistakes. People are far more comfortable discussing the situation, even discussing colleagues in a personal conversation. Here they can open up much more freely without worrying about how they appear to the team.

“Well Sean, my team is very close and everyone is comfortable with open criticism.”

Glad to hear it, but don’t be surprised if people say something different when they go back to their desks. I’ve worked with so-called ‘open’ companies, and everyone has a group face and a private face. What you want to do is understand what people really think, and that requires comfortable, candid conversations. A benefit of private conversations is that you can build an agenda for a group discussion. I know I’ve volunteered my screw-ups more then once to be used as a case study to help the company improve. If you do this, the tone changes from calling someone out to a process-building meeting.

“Can we talk through this situation as a group? I think a lot of people could learn from it.”

Territory Markers

This is something that grinds into everyone. The manager that always has to change something, even if it was right. You could have done the best job, everything is great, yet they’ll find something they need to adjust.

I don’t get this personally. If you have an important contribution, go for it, but you don’t have to leave your fingerprint everywhere. It’s like a dog marking its territory, and it’s just as upsetting to have your dog pee on your couch as someone who has to come into your space and arbitrarily change something. That doesn’t mean you can’t provide feedback if someone got their work right. Try leaving some constructive ideas or options that a person could consider. This opens up opportunities for that person to incorporate those, or at a minimum, gain new perspectives without having their work unnecessarily altered.

“I love the way this looks, here’s a couple ideas you could consider if you like.”


When someone screws up and they know it, they become very vulnerable. Sucky managers exploit this opportunity to punish people, oppress them and make them feel bad for getting something wrong. Most people will instantly get their backs up and become defensive, if they don’t completely break down and cry. Nothing pisses me off more than managers who go out of their way to hurt people’s feelings.

One of the easiest ways to reduce the pressure of criticism is to make yourself vulnerable as well. If you level the field, people will open up for an honest discussion.

“I stumbled over the same thing so many times too.”

“Everybody makes the same mistake the first time.”

“This is an honest error, we’ve all been there.”

These kinds of statements take the edge off of your criticism. Most people genuinely feel they’ve done a good job, so convincing them otherwise means getting them to accept their errors. It’s your job to create an environment where the person doesn’t feel like a total screw-up where they’re forced to defend or deflect something wrong.

There are so many examples of terrible feedback, and I don’t usually like to write about negative things, but this issue has bothered me more lately. Too many people I know suffer through crap management that stifles their ambition. So please, to the managers, supervisors and leaders, work on your feedback skills.



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