Criticism and Ineffective Feedback
March 16, 2015
A friend of mine started racing motorcycles a few years back. Motorcycle racing involves having a pit person who helps you tune the motorcycle before, during, and after races—like with car racing. The first year he raced, his pit guy gave classic critical feedback, telling him all the things he was doing wrong on the track. Since my friend was brand new to the sport there was a lot to criticize. The critical feedback damaged his confidence and made him a tentative rider. He got into accidents and considered quitting the sport that first season.
He decided to try for one more season but changed pit guys. His new pit guy was the diametric opposite of the man he'd worked with the previous year. He was unfailingly positive, told him everything he was doing well, and helped him understand what he could improve on the track. My friend found out later that this second pit guy would sometimes pretend to fiddle with his bike during a race and change nothing. He'd then come out and tell him that he had tuned the bike and that my friend would go faster during the next round, which he did. The difference between the two seasons was accidents versus trophies, and hating the sport versus loving the sport. While he certainly gained experience between the two seasons, he attributes a large part of his drastic increase in performance to the substitution of critical feedback for constructive feedback.
Critical feedback is an aspect of engineering cultures (and work-​cultures, in general) that is damaging to both employee performance and diversity efforts. Critical feedback is bad for a myriad of reasons. First, people have strong, negative reactions to criticism regardless of their gender, race, or age. Additionally, people's performance worsens when they are given critical feedback. They also end up resenting the person criticising them, even if the criticism is technically correct or kindly meant. Finally, criticism is disproportionately given to women and minorities during performance reviews, resulting in an uneven distribution of critical feedback in the workplace that harms diversity. This blog post talks about why criticism is ineffective, how criticism affects diversity, and several different ways you can give constructive feedback in the workplace without criticizing coworkers or employees.
What is critical feedback?
First, let's define what critical feedback is. For the purposes of this article, I use criticism to mean feedback that finds something wrong with someone, especially without giving them indications about how they can fix their behaviour. I'm going to fall back on the 8th-grade writing cliché of giving the dictionary definition of criticism. Criticism is "the act of passing severe judgement." It is also defined as "censure" and "faultfinding." Examples of critical phrases used in the workplace can range from mild criticism—"you don't write enough tests" or "your code quality isn't up to par"—to more severe and personal criticism—"you should be less judgemental" or "you ask too many questions and are being a burden".

It's important to note that people interpret criticism differently depending on many factors like their confidence, the tone it was delivered in, and the person giving the criticism. People will read the above phrases as being varying degrees of critical, and some people won't think those phrases are critical at all. However, anytime someone perceives a statement as being critical, regardless of the intention of the criticizer, it has negative effects.
Why is criticism ineffective?
Criticism is ineffective because it rarely makes the receiver change their behavior in any positive or constructive way. As Dale Carnegie puts it, "criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes [them] strive to justify [themselves]" [1]. When people receive criticism, they perceive it as an attack and their gut reaction is to defend themselves.

A person's desire to justify their actions is incredibly strong. Al Capone, one of the deadliest gangsters America has ever seen, saw himself as a public benefactor. He said, “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man” [3]. Despite an extensive list of criminal behavior, he believed he had a positive impact on the people of Chicago.

We humans also believe that we are more altruistic and talented than we actually are [2], and when we receive criticism it violates this positive self-perception. Many people reject this violation of their self-image outright and choose to not recognize or believe criticism. If the criticism can't be rejected, then people will focus on justifying their behavior rather than changing it. People are so averse to critical feedback they will go out of their way to avoid it. Noted psychologist Hans Selye once said, “As much as we thirst for approval, we dread condemnation” [3]. People are so eager to avoid criticism, critical feedback is more likely to make a person quit something than it is to change their behavior. No matter how right or well-intended the criticism may be, people do not like to hear about their flaws, shortcomings, or wrongdoings.
Criticism Worsens Performance
Criticism doesn't just make people defensive, criticism can also worsen a person's performance. In the book The Man Who Lied to his Laptop, Clifford Nass outlines a study that he did with a Japanese car company that illustrates this point. This car company had created a sophisticated system that used sensors and artificial intelligence to determine when someone was driving poorly and let the driver know. They asked Professor Nass to help them evaluate the effects of this system on driver performance in simulations before putting it live in cars. It's a good thing too because what they found is somewhat counter-intuitive.

The system gave well-intentioned feedback when people drove too fast or took corners too sharply. It would say things like, "You are not driving very well. Please be more careful." If you think that people were delighted to hear when they weren't driving well, you are mistaken. People were frustrated and angry when the system told them their driving wasn't very good. People's damaged egos would not have mattered if the system actually improved their driving. What they found through the simulations was that the feedback actually worsened people's driving. People got annoyed and, rather than slowing down or taking corners more cautiously, they sped up, oversteered, and generally drove worse the more critical feedback they received.

Professor Nass sums up it up by saying that "even stunningly accurate criticism may not be constructive" [4].
Criticism and Diversity
If criticism were applied equally to all employees in the workplace, then there wouldn't be a diversity issue with critical feedback. Unfortunately, women are given more criticism in employee feedback and performance reviews than men. In a recent study by Kieran Snyder, she gathered reviews from over 180 people. What she found was that 87.9% of women's employee reviews had critical feedback compared to 58.9% of men's reviews—a statistically significant difference. Additionally, 76% of criticism towards women included personal criticism, e.g. things like "you can come across as abrasive sometimes". By contrast, less than 2% of criticism targeting men was personal in nature [5].

Giving more critical feedback to a particular group can have dire consequences. If criticism causes resentment and can worsen a person's performance on the criticized task, then it's no longer just an issue of coworkers and managers being "not as nice" to particular subsets of people. The fact that women receive more critical feedback than men could materially damage their performance as a group. At the very least, it could make it look like women resent feedback more than men when they simply resent criticism, which men equally resent. If critical feedback is targeted towards certain groups more than others, it has the potential to cause systematic changes in behavior in that group by engendering resentment and potentially worsening the criticized behavior. Removing the uneven distribution of criticism in employee feedback is critical to creating an environment that fosters diversity.

So how do we even the playing field when it comes critical feedback? Given that everyone has a negative response to criticism, the most logical solution would be to remove all criticism from performance reviews and feedback.
If you don't criticize, how do you give people negative feedback?
People need feedback. I am not advocating removing employee feedback at companies. In fact, just the opposite. Employees should get feedback early and often. But the feedback should be about how to improve performance instead of what that person isn't doing well. In other words, tell people what you want them to do instead of detailing what they’re doing wrong. If you want someone to do things the right way then you have to tell them what the right way is. I have an anecdote to illustrate how feedback can be given without criticism in a way that improves performance.
Junior Varsity Girls Water Polo
The story is from my coaching days. Back in college when I was done with my own water polo career, I coached Junior Varsity girls water polo at the high school across the street. This job largely consisted of standing on the pool deck yelling at 14 and 15-year-old girls while they swam and did drills. At first I did what most people do: I defaulted to critical feedback and yelled at them when they did something wrong. “Don’t drop your elbow when you throw.” “Don’t drop your hips when you're swimming.”
These girls were brand new to water polo and knew as much about the sport as the average person reading this article. The response my criticism elicited from the girls was what I call the “deer caught in the headlights" response. Upon receiving my criticism, they stopped dead in their tracks. Not only did they feel bad about themselves because they had been criticized, they also had to make the cognitive leap from the negative statement I had yelled to the correct course of action, which took time.
After seeing this response over and over again, I decided to change the way I yelled at them. Instead of telling them what not to do I told them exactly what behavior I wanted to see. I would yell things like “keep your elbow up” or “keep your hips on top of the water”. Even though I was still yelling at them when they did something wrong, I wasn't yelling negative statements about what they were doing incorrectly. I was giving clear, actionable feedback. What I saw as a result was a complete and total 180-degree change in their behavior. They did exactly what I wanted and, moreover, they were much happier about it. As a result of this magical transformation, I almost entirely removed the words “no” and “don’t” from my vocabulary. The result was an increase in the morale, energy, and skill of the team.
How to give feedback in the workplace.
If you want to see a certain type of behavior from a coworker or employee, then tell them or ask them in direct terms. A good way to achieve this is by removing the words "no" and "don't" from your feedback. For anyone well-versed in the rules of logic, issuing a "not" statement means that anything except the behavior listed could be acceptable. Feedback is not usually intended to be so vague, and it gives a lot of room for interpretation by the receiver. Removing "no" and "don't" from feedback also removes the need for the receiver to make a cognitive leap about what you want them to do, and changes statements that are critical into action statements about improvement. Instead of saying things like "don't open such large pull requests" tell someone they should "open smaller pull requests." You can then follow it with an explanation detailing why your suggestion is an improvement.
Of course, sometimes the behavior you want from someone is for them to stop dead in their tracks. In these cases, issuing a "don't" statement makes perfect sense. For example, "don't alter data on a production database read-only mirror." What you want the person to do is freeze, then back away from their terminal very slowly without making sudden movements.
Another way to give feedback is to phrase things in terms of questions. This is a good form of feedback if you aren't sure what the correct course of action is and you want to spark a discussion. Be careful not to hide unspoken expectations behind questions, however. Questions leave space for people to misunderstand expectations or feel condescended to. For example, if I want someone I'm coaching to raise their elbow higher when they throw, saying "Should your elbow be higher?" isn't the most effective way to give that feedback. It's confusing and potentially sends mixed signals since it's not really a question. The answer is unequivocally​ yes. If you already know the answer or have certain behavior you want to see, state that directly. However, if your goal is to spark a discussion or to get someone thinking critically about a topic, a question is a great way to give feedback. If you want someone to think about their code you could ask them things like, "should you use a list comprehension here?", "does this function need to return multiple values?", or "what's the performance of this piece of code and why?" In these cases, there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer; what you want to see is someone thinking critically about their work and communicating their rationale for a solution.
Changing your feedback from "not" statements to action statements or questions will remove a lot of unintentional criticism from your feedback. A final rule of thumb is to be very, very careful when giving feedback of a personal nature. Most of the time, you should avoid it altogether and stay on the topic of their work. If you think someone needs feedback about how to work better with others, then give them advice about how to improve their skills as a teammate without issuing generalizations about their person. Telling someone they are "abrasive," "too domineering," or that they need to "let others shine" is never appropriate; it's critical and has no constructive information. Finally, it's important to realize that you might subconsciously be giving more personal criticism to women and minorities, even if you yourself are a woman or minority. So take care before you give a coworker or employee feedback about their personality or how they express feelings. It's probably not the best idea, no matter how good your intentions are.
Conclusion
The best way to create an environment where people do what you want them to do is to tell them exactly what you want from them. Give positive feedback to bolster people's confidence, ask questions when you want to spark a discussion, and give declarative feedback to help people improve and change. You will create an environment where people understand how to be successful, instead of just understanding that they somehow currently are not. You will also create a healthier environment for diverse groups by removing criticism that is disproportionately directed at them.
Resources
How our Engineering Environments are Killing Diversity Blog Post Series
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