Reconstructing Criticism: Collegiality

I am on a vacation I would like some time to enjoy and, well, this seems timely. A repost of a series.

“Because I said so” may be four of the most satisfying words in the English language. Unfortunately, they are almost exactly the wrong thing to say, or even imply, when delivering constructive criticism.

It isn’t that a person in a position of authority can’t deliver constructive criticism. They can and do frequently, since human resources management is the largest group to have embraced its utility. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that lie in combining the weight of authority with the criticism.

The first problem is that authority is all too often associated with punishment, which makes it much harder for recipients of criticism to hear it correctly. Listening or reading attentively is incompatible with wondering how much trouble is on its way and incompatible with a fight-or-flight response to fear. Setting aside this aspect of authority up front (“No, you’re not in trouble”) allows the message itself to come across more clearly.

Someone else’s authority is also not a good motivator under your average low-stakes situation. In high-stakes, strong-threat situations, yes, but those don’t generally involve constructive criticism. Under normal circumstances, people’s internal motivations are much stronger than outside authority, particularly in the long term and particularly in the immediate absence of that authority. Invoking internal motivations, showing people why change is needed rather than leaning on authority, is much more likely to effect lasting changes.

Closely related to that is the problem of defiance. Constructive criticism is that which builds the criticized party up, not tears them down. Criticism that relies on authority reinforces the recipient’s subordinate position. Who wants to be on the receiving end of that? And we don’t have to. Playgrounds have long taught us that the proper response to “Because I said so” is “Make me.” That simple retort undermines an adult in an actual position of authority almost as well as it does a bossy kid, setting up a power struggle in which the recipient of the criticism loses by making the desired change.

So you’re a person with some authority who wants to deliver constructive criticism. How do you do it? Focus on the reasons for change without being one of them. Yes, that is harder than it sounds. You can point to shared goals, but you’re better off pointing to the individual’s goals, since supporting your goals supports your authority. You can listen more than you talk, particularly about why the current state of things exists. You can enlist the recipient of the criticism in making a plan for change. You can have the discussion in their space instead of yours. You can do almost anything sincere to level the power dynamic between you and make you peers for the purposes of the criticism.

The one thing you absolutely can’t do, of course, is lean on “Because I said so” to do the work for you.