The Art of Criticism

The Art of Criticism

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photographer Tim Gouw

I consider myself a seasoned software engineer as I have been working in this industry for a good amount of time.

I recently received feedback from my team in one of the sprint retrospective sessions.

I agreed with many of the points my teammates were making. At the same time, I tried to present my views on the issue and the reasons why I made the decisions I made.

I approached the feedback with an open mind but still, it felt pretty harsh and I found it a bit discouraging.

This made me think, why did this feedback make me feel bad? Wondered if there is a better formula to provide the same feedback constructively.

Over 50 percent of employees in today’s workplace receive feedback that’s too general or not designed to give enough constructive criticism. This was mentioned in an article in the journal of Association for Talent Development titled “Please Boss Me Around.”

There are times that you need to give feedback to a colleague or they might be asking a question ( and no there are no stupid questions just people with different skills or skill levels). You might be their peer, team lead, or manager.

How do you give feedback? Have you ever paid attention to your choice of words or your tone?

Sometimes conversation in a team can be just logical, binary if you like, and the conversation tone might be condescending or even insulting.

When giving feedback, specifically if this is to criticise something that has gone wrong, discussions can easily take an ugly turn and become unproductive arguments or make the other person feel bad and inadequate.

We need to be mindful that people’s sensitivity levels are different and not everyone can stomach the same level of criticism.

This is not to say you cannot give them feedback but it is best to understand how the human brain works when receiving criticism/feedback.

Constructive criticism as it’s called is truly a hidden gem that can unlock many potentials in people. 💎

A research at the University of Minnesota shows that negative events at work, such as being criticised, have a more powerful effect on an employee’s mood than do positive events, such as receiving praise. The study reveals that employees react five times more strongly to a negative encounter with their boss than to a positive encounter. Moods are the dimmer switch of performance, so be careful how you use that dial. (Ref: What Our Brains Look Like on Praise and Criticism)

Giving constructive feedback is an art, and there are a few things to consider before designing your message. Luckily there are proven ways that you can use to give feedback without offending people. Here are some tips:

  1. Create a feedback-friendly atmosphere. 🤝 No matter what your position is, you can ask for feedback for yourself. Others around you are more likely to open up, drop their guard, and do the same. Next time you lead a meeting or give a presentation, ask a colleague to reflect on a few specifics.

  2. Make sure what you are about to criticise can be improved in the first place. In other words, no point in asking for a change in something that is not in control of the other person.

  3. Make sure that the other person understands your point of view before trying to ask them to change!

  4. Use the sandwich technique! 🥪 🌯 Wrap the issue you want to discuss between a couple of good feedbacks so your teammate doesn’t feel they are being cornered. People get defensive when they feel they are cornered.

  5. Always find the action that is causing the issue and criticise the action, not the person.

  6. When working in a software development team, you need to always approach issues from the team point of view! Use what is called “WE” language to emphasise that you as the team are willing to work and improve the situation.

  7. Avoid sarcasm! Avoid sarcasm! Avoid sarcasm! Also, keep your emotions out of the conversation!

  8. Don’t use a parenting tone! (Unless you are working with 5-year-old developers!) 👶 🍼 You might be a mom/dad but your teammates are not kids! (Eg: asking questions like this one with a parenting tone: “Alex! What do we do when the task’s estimate changes?!”)

  9. Avoid impulsive decisions for criticising someone. Think thoroughly and carefully before saying anything. You may not be able to undo what you say and this will cost you in terms of team relationships.

  10. Choose a proper time and place! ⏰ Remember you are about to tell someone there is an issue with what/how they do their job so you don’t want to add to that the embarrassment of being in front of everyone. You may even ask your colleague what is a good time to give them some feedback. This way they will not be caught off-guard and know what is coming.

  11. Watch your body language and tone of voice! 📣 Try to be friendly and approachable. For example, if you are sitting across the table from your colleague and hitting your hand on the table whilst talking loudly, you might be demonstrating an aggressive body language. (CHOPPING MOVEMENTS 🤺)

CHOPPING MOVEMENTS (Image from [13 Revealing Body Language Hand Gestures](https://nicolasfradet.com/hand-body-language/) article)CHOPPING MOVEMENTS (Image from 13 Revealing Body Language Hand Gestures article)

What is your experience with giving or receiving feedback at the workplace? Do you have any techniques to share?

Please feel free to comment.😊

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