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Dealing with errors is crucial for both personal and professional progress. How we assess errors and deal with them is shaped by constructive criticism. Within a company, constructive criticism can pay dividends in the form of motivated employees and long-term effects.
We explain what exactly the term “constructive criticism” means in the workplace, why many businesses are still far removed from actually providing an ideal environment for constructive criticism, and what they need to do if they want to establish it in their workplace.
- What Does Constructive Criticism Refer to?
- Status Quo of Constructive Criticism in the UK
- The Biggest Misunderstanding with Regard to Constructive Criticism
- Advantages of Constructive Criticism in the Workplace
- Tips on How a Company Can Establish an Ideal Constructive Criticism Culture
What Does Constructive Criticism Refer to?
The term “constructive criticism” is used in economics and social sciences to describe how people in social groups deal with risks and errors. It has its origins in mid-20th century science and management. It means encouraging a more positive interaction with errors that have been committed and aims to learn from them and avoid further damage. In this way they become catalysts for future success.
Status Quo of Constructive Criticism in the UK
The UK is considered a performance-oriented, yet tight-lipped society. The fact that errors are a bad thing is rooted in our culture, but so is being polite, making it very hard to give constructive criticism as feedback in case we are mistaken for being rude. As early as in school, we already start learning that anyone who makes mistakes gets bad grades and therefore suffers negative consequences in the long run. However, once we reach adulthood and the workplace, social graces may prohibit us from feeling comfortable offering an opinion that could be perceived as negative.
Success is most important in management. Mistakes in this field, so we have learned, must be avoided at all costs. For this reason, when companies here in the UK talked about dealing with errors, for a long time they actually meant avoiding errors. A different understanding of how to deal with errors first reached the mainstream in the 1990s.
At that time, the Japanese economy had experienced a huge boom. The West could quickly perceive the very different use of constructive criticism as the reason for this. While in the Western world we tended to look for a guilty party and the reasons for an error, in Japan they focused on the solution and alternative approaches.
Today, little has changed in these different attitudes. On paper, the concept is well-known in most companies, though few manage to put it into practice.
The Biggest Misunderstanding with Regard to Constructive Criticism
The fact that constructive criticism in the workplace is integral to promoting economic success has already been known for quite some time at management level. Nevertheless, in practice it is frequent to observe traditional approaches: threatening with negative consequences when employees make a mistake, thinking this will force them to work more attentively and thoroughly, and improve their results.
In fact, companies mostly achieve the opposite in the workplace with this type of approach. Anyone who introduces this kind of maxim may at first observe a real decrease in their error quote. Yet even if managers often feel validated initially, this doesn’t mean that the results will be better in the longer term. Rather, it means that fear reigns and that the company could end up in a negative spiral as a consequence.
This is because employees have a dwindling incentive to take risks due to a fear of penalties. They are worried about making a mistake, as it could result in a lecture from their boss, perhaps even a warning, or, in the worst-case scenario, a dismissal. Yet in a society where economic success is becoming increasingly more dependent on a company’s ability to innovate, an aversion to risk can be disastrous. It can go so far as employees preferring not to act at all instead of potentially making mistakes. If such an avoidance culture is established, it can threaten to sabotage the company’s success.
Characteristics of a negative work environment regarding mistakes
- Covered-up errors
- Naming and shaming those who caused the error
Advantages of Constructive Criticism in the Workplace
Using constructive criticism is not just a good deed the company does for its employees. Nor is it only a social benefit that improves the work environment. More than anything, it is an effective measure for ensuring a company’s economic success.
This is because in every error there lies an opportunity for a company to become better – provided that they don’t ignore or gloss over it, but instead analyse missteps constructively. This ensures that the employee in question not only learns how to avoid this error in the future, but also works better and more efficiently going forward. Others also benefit when the error is spoken about in a way that is open and constructive.
Characteristics of a positive work environment regarding mistakes
- Openly addressing errors
- Respect for when others admit errors
- Focus on the factual level and the future
Tips on How a Company Can Establish an Ideal Constructive Criticism Culture
A changed, positive culture for constructive criticism in the workplace cannot be introduced overnight by decree but must instead be the shared responsibility of employees. It must also be allowed to evolve. With these tips, you will lead criticism within your team in the right direction.
If an employee confesses to making an error, your reaction as a manager should not be overly emotional, reproachful or include personal insults. Nor should you immediately tell the employee it’s alright and fail to give proper feedback or instruction in how to proceed going forward. In doing so, you ensure a poor work environment and strengthen the tendency to cover up errors – until the problems have gotten to be so big that you no can no longer sweep them under the proverbial rug. In your professional communcationyou should instead appreciate the employee’s honesty if they, for example, proactively approach you, and focus on helping to find a solution.
The Function of a Role Model
Anyone who establishes an open and respectful manner of dealing with errors and wants to move away from a workplace culture of threats and accusations, should set a good example as a manager and openly own up to their own errors. At the same time, however, they should also point out the potential for development that comes with it. In doing so, you do not undermine your expertise, but instead exemplify what you demand from your workers.
A requirement for learning from errors is the ability of every individual employee to self-reflect. Only when the individual recognises their error themselves, and as early as possible, can any correction and improvement options be thought about. Encourage your employees – in spite of the high pressure to be productive – to take time to reflect by explicitly discussing their mistake in weekly reports or performance reviews.
Consistent Disapproval of Negative Behaviour Patterns
Just as important as encouraging employees to admit their errors is the consistent disapproval of additional cover-ups. If you observe that employees do not admit to errors or are too in late in doing so, you should promptly try to have a one-on-one conversation in order to clearly communicate your disapproval. Most of the time it is not at all necessary to threaten or impose penalties. The emotional impact of a one-on-one conversation is more than adequate. If word gets around that one can no longer get by with the old avoidance strategy and that the boss really backs a new approach to openness, then it will sweep up all team members in a positive way.
If you observe that your company culture needs to fundamentally change with regard to how errors are handled, it can be useful to assemble a project team. Instead of dictating all reforms from above, employees can become part of the process. The probability is great that they will support changes made in this way with more willingness and commitment.
In order for constructive criticism to be effective, you must establish clear processes for learning as much as possible from the errors that have been committed. Document your error-handling processes and introduce processes that ensure that what you’ve learned is also truly incorporated into daily business practices.
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