Constructive criticism

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people confuse dishonesty with politeness. Every single day, I see and hear these things happen around me.

If you don’t understand what I mean, think about a meeting or conversation you’ve been involved in when someone pitched an idea that someone else didn’t like. Chances are, instead of giving honest feedback—which can certainly be polite and respectful, by the way—the person who didn’t like it brushed it off with a lukewarm oh-that’s-an-interesting-idea response. Or worse yet, he pretended to like the idea and then left disappointed, never to implement it.

Everyone loses in that scenario. The person who made the proposal receives no guidance with respect to how to improve it, and the person to whom it was pitched remains empty handed—all under the guise of not wanting to offend the other party.

Here’s a specific example. I’m working on a project with a team of others to name a product line. After several brainstorming sessions, we presented some options. Initially, we received some thoughtful nods, but after weeks of silence following the meeting, we finally realized that we had missed the mark. Eventually a few detached comments filtered our way, but we were back to square one.

No one wants to deliver bad news, but we would have been a lot better off if someone had said, “Hey, I appreciate the effort, but I really don’t like this option. I had been hoping for something that more effectively conveyed [insert characteristic here].” My team would have been immediately able to regroup and attack the problem afresh, with the added benefit of better understanding the expectations. Instead, we sat and stewed, not knowing what went wrong, and I’ll bet the recipients also stewed a bit, questioning our capability—all because they thought they were being polite.

This misguided attempt at congeniality undermines productivity, and that frustrates me more than I can express. We’d all get a lot more done if we’d learn how to marry that revered politeness with honesty. Criticism isn’t a bad thing if it’s productive.

5 thoughts on “Constructive criticism

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  1. Thank you! What a refreshing post. It drives me nuts when people play these types of games all in the name of being “nice”. There is nothing wrong with saying you don’t like something. It doesn’t make either party “less” because of a difference of opinion.

  2. I grew up in the South (mostly), and I think most of the population of “southerners” come across as sweet and kind, when really, they are just avoiding being honest. Now I live in the Bronx, and, well, I don’t see that problem here. HA! 🙂

  3. A refreshing post indeed! Honest feedback is worth its weight in gold. Yet some people are conflict averse or would rather be surrounded by yes men. There’s a wonderful saying “A true friend tells you when you have dirt on your face”. I think if you have some true friends in business you are indeed lucky.

  4. I recently wrote about something similar recently myself. Most of us have an aversion to being rude or judgmental so we overcompensate with politeness and we patronize (which for me is high insult.) The worst part of this behavior is not that we are being dishonest with others but that we are dishonest with ourselves. The truth is we are judgmental by nature and it’s not that we really mind being rude, we just don’t want to be seen by others as judgmental or rude … regardless, I feel like our proclivity toward unnecessary niceties means a lot of people who need to be “taken down a few doin’s” don’t get told like they should.

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