How to Stop Counterproductive Criticism and Coach Constructively

One of the most frequent concerns I encounter when I’m interviewing business people — regardless of whether they work on the frontlines or are members of boards of directors — is that they rarely hear any good news. People complain that they don’t find out whether initiatives have turned out well, and they certainly don’t receive enough personal praise. What they do hear plenty of, though, is what’s not working and when people are unhappy with them.

And what do people take from all those negatives? That they’re unsatisfactory, that their work isn’t up to snuff, or — worst of all — that they’re unworthy. And as bad as all of that is, they often have no idea how to make the situation better — and the feedback they get doesn’t help. The result? Resentment, confusion, and no improvement. Not the desired outcome at all.

The Dangers of Hypercritical Behavior

Brain science and cognitive research show that we tend to perceive negatives more quickly and more deeply, and that we hold on to them longer. Humanity started out all geared up to perceive the slightest rustle in the grass as danger in the form of a tiger or a snake. Today, many of us are permanently on alert for any danger signal, so we notice a lot more of what’s wrong than we do of what’s wonderful.

Perhaps worse, critical people are often perceived as smarter than supportive people, simply because they point out more things that are wrong, and often with great confidence. But these smart, confident, analytical people often don’t have the skills — or the inclination — to offer crucial explanations or create alternative approaches that would help others shift to more productive behaviors.

When people are too negative, they can end up damaging co-workers. So no matter what their functional expertise, these naysayers need to be coached actively or they can’t be considered organizational assets. In the meantime, you can try pairing a negative person with a more supportive colleague, or create a safety net of other employees who will repair whatever damage the negative folks create within their networks.

6 Steps to Coach for Improvement

What if you could create guidelines for constructive, forward-looking feedback? You could build something along the following lines:

  1. Determine whether the issue is worth addressing. What’s the meaningful change you hope to accomplish? If it’s not meaningful and significant, save your energies for something else instead.
  2. Reduce the possibility of inadvertent blaming by assessing the effects of current process, available resources or lack thereof, and clarity of structure or goal. Do these impacts explain what went wrong, or why someone did what they did? You shouldn’t take people off the hook for their responsibilities, but it’s crucial to identify what they can actually do to improve the situation from where they are right now, rather than creating false expectations based on optimal but nonexistent conditions. Acknowledge any of these external limitations in any coaching conversations you have.
  3. Be on the lookout for any way you might have contributed to the problem yourself — and own up to it. None of us is perfect, and even if we’re not making mistakes right this minute, we’ve surely made them before. Recognizing your own responsibility will help you maintain humility while you’re pointing out someone else’s fault.
  4. Keep the individual’s future success in mind so you can identify what will help them the most. When you focus on what’s best for someone else, it’s less likely that you’ll treat that person as mere collateral damage in your pursuit of a better outcome.
  5. Scan the environment constantly for what is working well, and praise everyone who made a contribution.
  6. Begin framing any specific coaching conversation by stating the necessary negative content clearly and briefly, and then move on to the positive. This way no one is waiting for additional shoes to drop. Be both concrete and reassuring so that recipients leave the conversation feeling that they know what to do and that you have confidence in their ability to do it.

Employees who are expert at spotting mistakes and problems and frequently take others to task for them often feel even more superior when it turns out they’re right. But truly making things better often requires experimentation, the investment of personal time and energy, and persistence. Following these guidelines will help you create an environment in which correction actually leads to improvement.

Onward and upward,


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