Constructive Feedback vs. Armchair Quarterback

I have seen a couple of incidents of criticism that were wrapped in the concept of  “feedback” that are still wrinkling me. Given that as communicators, most of what we do is put out for review and input, I think that there might be some value in my little rant about what is and isn’t constructive criticism.

I have a friend that is currently working on a volunteer project. She is putting in many, many hours as a volunteer to help our former high school celebrate its 100-year anniversary. The small group of volunteers producing this event have done a spectacular job and should be applauded.

In a short time frame, they have reached out and found many grads and engaged us in the celebrations. They are producing a video that showcases some grads doing interesting things in the world. They somehow got funding from a former student, now a successful businessperson, to pay for ads in a large daily newspaper to promote the anniversary celebrations. There are active Facebook events, which include a pub night, a gala and many other activities.

The job they have done is incredible. And yet – each time they announce that they have done something, there are the critics. Who – just for the record – don’t seem to be doing much except watching Facebook and criticizing what these people are doing.

It got me to thinking about criticism and the difference between it being constructive and of value, and when it is of no value – except maybe for making the person giving it feel superior. Constructive criticism has great value. It’s about providing relevant and timely input. It is about making something better. It’s about improving and growing. It’s a crucial component of professional and personal development.

At AHA, we always debrief after a project, initiative or event to look at what we can do better or differently. We look at what worked, and what could be improved – relative to the situation. I can tell you, for as tough as all of us at AHA can be – we are very conscious of how we provide criticism, when that happens and why it happens. We always make sure that we put any criticism into context before the feedback starts.

Random criticism about what someone would have done if they were doing it is of no value to anyone except maybe the ego of the person criticizing. Used as the opportunity to tell someone what you don’t like or what you would have done (which, you didn’t do!) isn’t constructive criticism, it’s just bitching and complaining.

At AHA, our approach is that if you are going to provide feedback that is critical of someone’s work or actions, you need to fully understand the context. For example, what was the deadline, what was the budget, what was the expectation, what was the objective, what were the influencing factors that were out of our control…the list goes on and on.  And, it must include the positives – what went right, what was a success, what can be built on.

Constructive criticism makes everyone involved feel positive about what could be improved. It is delivered in a respectful, considerate manner and it acknowledges not just the context and situation, but the work that was done.

I have to say that I also think that no one should be allowed to randomly criticize volunteers like my friend, who are doing their absolute best, unless the critic is willing to step up and actually participate and get involved. Until you actually do something, you have no idea how hard it is to achieve it.

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