How To Give Constructive Criticism

The Internet has brainwashed us into believing that we can grow old but don’t have to grow up – but you know you have to, eventually; the bills don’t pay themselves. When dealing in the freelancing world, we all love working with grown-ups; people who we can depend on to deliver what we need.

Plus, no one loves working with a person who relays communication via tantrums and shouts. And of course, no one likes their work to be criticized, unfairly.

As much as everyone has an opinion and loves to give it, not everyone can take another man’s opinion. The advice strewn about everywhere has always been along the lines of "criticism will help you grow, if you let it" but rarely do people advise us on how to give criticism that is truly constructive – the kind that actually helps the receiver.

What is Constructive Criticism?

Constructive Criticism is hard work. It is the responsible form of criticizing someone’s work. To deliver constructive feedback, you need to have respect for the person on the other end, play fair, do your homework, and help them get better.

It is different from just purely hating something because it didn’t work for you. That form of criticism is almost always as easy to do as it is as easy to hate.

Many people criticize just to let off steam, to get a point across in the most agitated form possible, or to flaunt superiority. One very common example is the customer’s complaint. They come in upset, scream into the phone, sometimes to someone who is not even responsible for their outburst.

This may work in this scenario but not when you are the workplace. If you need to demand respect, that usually means you don’t know how to earn it.

Is criticism what they need?

Any form of criticism stems from the decision-maker’s dissatisfaction of a job done or delivered. It could be that it’s not up to an expected level of quality, or there are a few missing essentials. In any case, it doesn’t achieve a required objective or a set of objectives, which is why it needs to be rectified.

But before jumping in to criticize someone’s work, you have to play fair, and give them the benefit of the doubt. To be able to give constructive criticism, you have to first respect and acknowledge the fact that the receiver knows what he or she is doing, and that he had ample time to deliver satisfactory results.

Getting The Right Person For The Job

For the former, if you find that the person-in-charge is not suited for the job at hand, there is no need for criticism – there is a need to redelegate the task, or find someone else who is more suitable.

Suppose you do have the right man for the job, but his work isn’t up to par. Take into account if he had enough time, the right resources, all the up-to-date information required for him to carry out his task well.

If not, it’s not criticism that you should give, it’s the resources he needs to further improve the job at hand. Remember that sometimes you need to ask them point blank in order to get to the root of the problem, and this helps you understand the situation better.

How To Give Constructive Criticism

So you’re sure the person-in-charge is at fault, which is why you’re still reading this. There is no avoiding the dreaded "talk". But first, here’s what you need to prepare:

1. Identify the problem

Yes, constructive criticism is hard work, and part of it involves identifying the problem. No one likes being told that what they’re doing is wrong, without being given the specifics of what the hell is wrong. Adopting the "Because I said so," attitude is not only child-like, it also shows how little you think of other people’s time.

If you find that the issue is with the person’s carelessness, or them focusing on a wrong area or aspect, or a terrible misunderstanding of the specifications, tell it like it is. Get the person on the same page before proceeding to what you think is a proper solution.

2. Provide a solution

Yes, you also need to provide a solution. If blue is not the color you want, identify what is, and why. Don’t give people that "reddish blue but not purple" nonsense. Unless a specific color has been specified in the client’s brief, a designer has the freedom to pick a suitable color for your design.

If you don’t like it – which is totally fine, since you are paying for the design – give them a ballpark color and your reasoning why it is better suited for your purpose. This applies to all forms of feedback. Alternatively, you can share your expectations of the receiver’s future performances. Be clear with what you want, which leads us to the next point.

3. Provide examples

As an extension from #2, examples will help you and the receiver get the same visuals in both your minds. This can be in the form of what steps to take in order to fix the problem, what changes to make, or what new direction to follow.

Where possible, treat this like it’s the last time the both of you can sit down and discuss the task(s) and expectation(s), so lay everything out on the table and talk it out. (Seriously, how many times does this criticism talk need to happen? Unless it is completely necessary, once is enough).

4. Give them limitations they can work with

And because you aren’t a dictator, do provide the receiver with how much freedom he can work with, or the limitations he has to manage. This will allow him to exercise his creative license (it’s his job to have some input into the task, isn’t it?) while still delivering what you expect from him.

Last Reminders

In highlighting the pitfalls to avoid, the ultimate goal of constructive criticism is to help the receiver improve. The tone and attitude in relaying this information should be encouraging, despite the need to highlight the negative aspects of the situation.

Also remember that, not everyone can accept your criticism with an open mind – constructive or not, be ready to receive a defiant backlash that may stem from wounded dignity. You might also want to prepare for harsh words bent on retaliation or attacks on your personality – things that make you question why you are doing this in the first place.

I’ll tell you why.

Criticism that is constructive is essential to the industry at large. Not only does it funnel experience from the seasoned players to new beginners, it also helps develop best practices for the whole trade. As it may take a while for a newbie to catch up in terms of experience, criticism can help accelerate the learning process, and don’t we love to have more professionals around to help us achieve our goals?