How to be a critical friend

18th January 2019 at 00:00
Delivering criticism can feel like playing with fire, but these proven techniques will enable you to reach a constructive outcome rather than fanning the flames of discontent, writes Simon Creasey

Receiving criticism from your boss or a colleague can be tough, but giving it is even trickier. This is especially true if you are in a close-knit school where you were once “one of the team” but now find yourself in charge. Get it right and your criticism can be incredibly helpful and constructive. But get it wrong and it can be destructive, making a bad situation even worse.

So, for line managers new and old, what’s the best way to give constructive criticism and what are the general rules to follow?

In their book, Developing Management Skills, David A Whetten and Kim S Cameron argue that the ability to deliver what they describe as “supportive communication” is vitally important to an organisation’s success, because it builds or strengthens a relationship, regardless of how uncomfortable the message being communicated is.

Whetten and Cameron also note research showing organisations that are “fostering supportive interpersonal relationships enjoy higher productivity, faster problem-solving, higher-quality outputs, and fewer conflicts and subversive activities than groups and organisations in which relationships are less positive”.

So, avoiding difficult conversations is not an option. However, it’s one thing understanding why it’s important to deliver criticism effectively but quite another to do it well. Thankfully, there are a series of established protocols to help these conversations run smoothly.

Psychologist Susan Heitler, author of The Power of Two: secrets to a strong and loving marriage, says the most effective way of delivering criticism is to take a shared, problem-solving approach, focused on “improvement rather than a ‘who’s to blame’ or ‘you shouldn’t’ critical stance”.

“Think of what you are engaging in as ‘fix-it talk’, not criticism,” she suggests.

This should help with another key point: during what can often be a fraught conversation for all parties, the person delivering the criticism needs to be “respectful and civil”, according to Christine Porath, associate professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington D C and author of Mastering Civility: a manifesto for the workplace. “Pay attention to your tone and non-verbals – not just the message you’re delivering,” she urges.

Listen, don’t just speak

It’s also vitally important to pay attention to what the person receiving the critical message says. Whetten and Cameron point out that research suggests listening is at least as important as delivering supportive messages. As they write in their book: “A common adage goes something like this: ‘In any conversation, the person who talks the most is the one who learns the least.’ ”

Unfortunately, Whetten and Cameron say most people have underdeveloped listening skills: “Tests have shown, for example, that individuals are usually about 25 per cent effective in listening; that is, they listen to and understand only about a fourth of what is being communicated.”

Making a concerted effort to listen and understand what the other person is saying, rather than thinking about what you are going to say next, is a must. What can help here, says Heitler, is ensuring you plan a structure for the conversation in advance. She suggests using a six-step feedback protocol.


* Step one – ensure you plan for what she describes as the “feedback sandwich”. “Start and end with positive comments about what, overall, is going well or what the staff person is doing well,” she says.

* Step two – label the problem or the behaviour and not the person. For example: “There seems to be a problem with paperwork getting submitted after deadlines”, not “Why are you rubbish at deadlines?”

* Step three – explain your underlying concerns about the consequences. Tell the person: “When teachers and administrators submit their paperwork after the deadlines, the school gets penalised,” says Heitler. “Note that starting with ‘when’ or ‘when you’ conveys the most information with the least feeling of finger-pointing.”

* Step four – it’s important that you aim to fix the system and not the people. For example, you could say to the problematic member of staff: “I’m wondering if there’s something about how we are conveying which paperwork is due when that isn’t working.”

* Step five – Heitler advises it’s also vital that the person delivering the criticism acknowledges their role in the problem by saying: “Maybe my staff have been unclear about dates by which paperwork will be due.”

* Step six – finally, she suggests asking the staff member to offer their own solutions. For example: “What would you suggest that you and/or us change in the system to better keep paperwork submissions on schedule?”


Heitler adds that using a combination of different approaches is usually the most effective way forward.

“Upfront and honest needs to be combined with tact, problem-solving and appreciation,” she says. “Explain the problem, then aim to generate solutions. Add a tincture of positivity with appreciation for what the listener is doing well to help the feedback to slide in smoothly.”

Try not to be tone deaf

As for the most unhelpful thing you could do when delivering criticism, Porath says “being rude is bad”.

Sarcasm is also a definite no-no, according to Heitler: “Want to give criticism that really hurts? Add sarcasm. Tone trumps information. If your tone comes across as contemptuous, the ‘I don’t like you’ message will come across more strongly than any information about the change you would like to see.

“Sarcasm and contempt generate negative feelings towards you and towards working for you. They also invite resistance instead of compliance with your requested changes.”

Delivering criticism isn’t easy, but it has to be done, otherwise a situation can rapidly spiral out of control. As Winston Churchill said: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer

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