Criticism is Not Feedback: Seven Questions for Understanding the Source of Your Frustrations

The summer between the second and third year of law school is the most important for finding a job after graduation. I was fortunate to secure a fantastic internship with a law firm that specialized in disaster litigation in the Western United States. I learned a lot during that summer and really enjoyed my experience. However, my supervising attorney severely lacked the communication skills fitting someone of his position. One of the most demeaning things he did was to refer to me as “Dumb - - - -.” He used this disparaging term any time he addressed me. After enduring several months of such talk, another managing partner heard him use this label and asked him to stop referring to anyone in the office in such a manner.

What was most baffling about this experience was that his contempt for me was unfounded. I worked hard and did great work. I even won a writing competition within the firm that allowed me to travel with a group of attorneys from the firm to travel to Puerto Rico to work on a major disaster case involving a fire which destroyed a major hotel. 

I have often wondered why this brilliant attorney would refer to me and others in such derogatory terms. I am sure that there are a number of reasons. Perhaps that’s how he was treated when he was a young law clerk. Or, maybe he thought that motivation through fear was the most effective way to move people toward new heights of achievement. Or, maybe his view of himself or others was so abysmal that his directions and expressions toward others reflected the dark side of his view of humanity. Unfortunately, I will never know, but for an absolute certainty, I can declare that referring to anyone in a demeaning, belittling, or derogatory fashion does not inspire, uplift, or motivate anyone. And being disparaging does not necessarily improve results.

Feedback is absolutely essential for improving performance, increasing accountability, establishing responsibility, and achieving the desired results. How we speak and act toward others is essential to creating what we really want. Although I know the example above is extreme, I believe that we could all do a better job of becoming more aware of how we interact with those with whom we live and work. Sometimes we may let our frustrations and emotions get the best of us and sometimes we may be entirely unaware of how we come across. I hope that you will take the opportunity to reflect on how you are viewed by others and make whatever adjustments and improvements are needed to improve your communication with others.

Here are a number of questions you might ask yourself to heighten your awareness, improve your interactions, and achieve more positive results.

With whom and when are you most frustrated and why?

Take some time to identify specific interactions with certain people or situations that tend to be frustrating or irritating. Once you have identified troubling situations or interactions, you can explore the reasoning behind your past results. You can’t manage or improve what you don’t recognize as ineffective. Asking yourself why you become frustrated will help you surface the thinking that is driving your behavior. Objectively look at the situation.

How do you view the people you interact with most frequently?

This question is along the same lines of the question above. Answering it honestly will help you become more aware of how you perceive certain people. If you find that you view them in a negative light, then you need to focus on their strengths and provide them feedback about what you would like them to improve about their performance. People love to know what they do well and what they could do to improve. When you provide feedback to help them improve in a respectful way, they will value your interest and commitment to their growth and development. Become clear about the negative assumptions you hold about others and turn your attention to the positive.

Are you clear and specific about what you want and why?

If you are too vague in your communication with others, it puts them in the position of making a “best guess” about what you really want. If they don’t know what they should do or exactly what you want, they will often do what they think is best, not asking for clarification for fear of looking bad, ignorant, or inattentive.

Also explaining why you are asking someone to do a particular task helps to eliminate any second guessing or doubts that may arise out of their own misunderstanding. It is also an opportunity to mentor and coach them if they are unsure about their skills or abilities. Check the clarity of your directions by asking questions.

Do you provide people with the resources they need?

Sometimes people are unwilling to reveal that they really don’t know how to do what you are asking them to. They may need training; they may not have time given other tasks on their plate, or they may need certain materials and equipment to complete these tasks. Sometimes people don’t know exactly what they need to complete the project until they actually take the time to think through and identify what they made need to do a certain task until they actually have to do it. When thinking about resources from their perspective, it is helpful to ask them what they may need to get them thinking and anticipating their needs. Get clear about resources.

Do you understand people’s view of their own deficiencies?  

Learning about a person’s view of their own performance can be quite revealing. You will come to understand that they either possess an inaccurate view of what they think they do well or that they have an inaccurate view of what they think they don’t do well. If they underestimate their strengths, then you know that perhaps you are not providing enough positive feedback when their performance meets your expectations. If they overestimate their abilities, you will want to create a plan to help turn their weakness into strengths or reduce liabilities. Understand people’s view of themselves and help them to see their opportunities.  

Do you encourage people no matter how they perform?

When you encourage people that do well, you will get more of the same. When you encourage people that don’t do well, you are sending the message that you have confidence in their ability to learn, grow and develop. So often the only time leaders talk to their people is when they haven’t performed as expected. Look for opportunities to recognize positive performance and encourage people’s efforts. Express positive beliefs about people and their ability.

Are you providing the feedback that people need to improve?

If you repeatedly continue to not get the results that you want, then you need to explore how you contribute to your lack of results. Examine whether you have provided specific information about processes, procedures, desired behaviors, concrete goals and objectives, deadlines, or anything that will eliminate doubt about what is required.   If you provide specific feedback and take the time to help people be successful, you will ensure that you will achieve more of what you really want. Provide feedback about what may not be working.  

There is no reason to be demeaning and belittling of others or their efforts when they don’t perform as expected. Being vague and highly disrespectful will not get you what you want. In fact, you may create more of what you don’t want while damaging relationships, destroying discretionary effort, undermining trust, and eroding the organization’s culture. Answering some of the questions above will help you to avoid your frustrations while improving the performance of those who work for you. After all, your results are determined by the conversations that you hold.

What else have you found that helps you get results?