Does Criticism Make You Cranky?

How did you feel the last time you received feedback? Did you feel energized or cranky? The effect of the message most likely was influenced by how the sender framed the communication.

Coaching is an important component of transformational leadership. Most management curricula train students how to give effective feedback. Many websites provide tips also (see the 20 quoted below). Feedback drives improvement in most all aspects of employee and organizational performance and development. Regardless of forum (360 performance review or feedback on a specific task or project, for example), the communication exchange helps align leader and employee expectations and shapes common goals and visions.

Conceptually, coaching differs from criticism because coaching focuses on behavior whereas criticism centers on the person. More often than not, criticism serves the sender of the message more than it helps the receiver. The following principles fit into the “coaching” category.

  1. Give feedback only when asked to do so or when your offer is accepted.
  2. Give feedback as soon after the event as possible.
  3. Focus on the positive.
  4. Feedback needs to be given privately wherever possible, especially more negative feedback.
  5. Feedback needs to be part of the overall communication process and ‘developmental dialogue’. Use skills such as rapport or mirroring, developing respect and trust with the [receiver].
  6. Stay in the ‘here and now’, don’t bring up old concerns or previous mistakes, unless this is to highlight a pattern of [behaviors].
  7. Focus on [behaviors] that can be changed, not personality traits.
  8. Talk about and describe specific [behaviors], giving examples where possible and do not evaluate or assume motives.
  9. Use ‘I’ and give your experience of the [behaviors] (‘When you said…, I thought that you were…’).
  10. When giving negative feedback, suggest alternative [behaviors].
  11. Feedback is for the recipient, not the giver – be sensitive to the impact of your message.
  12. Consider the content of the message, the process of giving feedback and the congruence between your verbal and non-verbal messages.
  13. Encourage reflection. This will involve  posing open questions such as:
  14. Did it go as planned? If not why not?
  15. If you were doing it again what would you do the same next time and what would you do differently? Why?
  16. How did you feel during the session? How would you feel about doing it again?
  17. How do you think the [receiver] felt? What makes you think that?
  18. What did you learn from this session?
  19. Be clear about what you are giving feedback on and link this to the learner’s overall professional development and/or intended [program] outcomes.
  20. Do not overload – identify two or three key messages that you [summarize] at the end. (

In a vibrant organizational culture, most employees desire on-going growth and development. Part of that is facilitated by the leader’s coaching, encouragement, and support. Transformational leaders are role models also. Therefore, they need to model how to receive feedback, and should be held to an even higher standard than their teammates. This higher standard includes viewing criticism as an opportunity, not as a personal affront.

Shelia Heen and Douglas Stone (2014) help navigate the “how to” challenge in their article, “Find the Coaching in Criticism,” published in the Harvard Business Review. They identify three barriers, which interfere with the recipient understanding the message:

Truth triggers are set off by the content of the feedback. When assessments or advice seem off base, unhelpful, or simply untrue, you feel indignant, wronged, and exasperated.

Relationship triggers are tripped by the person providing the feedback. Exchanges are often colored by what you believe about the giver (Heʼs got no credibility on this topic!) and how you feel about your previous interactions (After all Iʼve done for you, I get this petty criticism?). So you might reject coaching that you would accept on its merits if it came from someone else.

Identity triggers are all about your relationship with yourself. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, it can be devastating if it causes your sense of who you are to come undone. In such moments youʼll struggle with feeling overwhelmed, defensive, or off balance (Heen & Stone, 2014, para 9-11).

Heen and Stone (2014) also provide tips for preventing the detraction brought about by the above triggers. First is recognizing our own reaction patterns and how we get defensive. Second is separating the message from the sender because regardless of the source, the message may have value. Third is to put a positive construction on the message; if the message sounds judgmental, work to see it as helpful advice that offers a new perspective. Forth is to “unpack” the feedback to better understand it and to determine what parts may be useful.

They provide a great example. Consider receiving the comment that “you need to be more assertive.” That comment violates the principles of constructive feedback delivery. However, on the receiving end, one can turn the situation around by asking or at least identifying specific behaviors that may have led to the sender’s judgment. Heen and Stone (2014) add also that it is important to understand precisely what the desired behavior is. What the sender judges “good” may not align with the receiver’s definition.

Fifth, they recommend asking for feedback during informal times and intervals. Waiting for a performance review is reactive. A proactive approach is inviting “bite-sized” feedback regularly. This is not fishing for compliments. Rather, asking good questions is key. For example, “how did I do” is vague. Asking for one specific observation concerning good or weak performance on a specific task will likely yield a more useful response. Finally, Heen and Stone (2014) recommend conducting small experiments to determine which elements in feedback received are helpful or not.

My book, Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training, presents my research on connections between avid athletes who are successful leaders in their organizations. How they coach and provide feedback to their employees was addressed, and their behaviors align well with the principles of providing constructive feedback. Transformational leaders are apt to deliver receiver-centered feedback.

Leaders control how feedback is given. Everyone can control how he or she receives feedback. Despite the motives or skills of the sender, we have the choice to find opportunity in the message.


Heen, S., & Stone, D. (2014). Find the Coaching in Criticism. HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, 92(1-2), 108-+.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.