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Balancing the Leadership scales – Praise vs. Constructive Criticism

Filed in Blog by Tracey Davison on 796 - 0 Comments

How to give constructive criticism - Leadership Blog

First ask yourself, which one do you find more comfortable giving – praise or criticism?  Now be honest with yourself – do you give more of the one that you feel most comfortable with?  For most people, the answer will be yes, because we naturally move towards behaviours we feel comfortable with and away from those that make us feel uncomfortable.  But your preference for one over the other may be limiting the performance of your team.  For many leaders they are simply unsure how to give constructive criticism and praise.
As with any preference, it is determined by a number of factors, but for the most part stems from the way you were praised and criticised whilst growing up (for more see How Should Leaders Praise their Teams).  Whilst there are few leaders nowadays who fail to recognise the power of both praise and (constructive) criticism in achieving outstanding performance, it is a powerful exercise in both self-awareness and team development to evaluate how much of each you’re giving your team.

The Power of Praise
Praise makes people feel good about themselves.  It lets them know they’re doing a good job, that you’re happy with their performance and can boost self-esteem.  Praise also serves to reinforce good behaviours, resulting in more of them.  So, should we all be loading bucketfuls of praise on our teams?  Well, no.  Firstly we must consider the way in which we praise our team, both Carol Dweck and Alfie Kohn (key figures in the research into the effects of praise) have reported that praising ability and outcome will bring about negative consequences. Dweck’s research suggests we should be praising effort rather than outcome because those who are praised on outcome perform at a lower level, avoid new challenges and are ill-equipped for dealing with failure.  Conversely, those praised on effort welcome new challenges, accept failure as part of the learning process and achieve greater results.
In order to experience the benefits of praise, it needs to be balanced with constructive criticism.  If it is not then your team may begin to question your sincerity.  Additionally, those who receive a large amount of praise with very little, or no constructive criticism, may quickly become complacent about their own performance and stop looking for ways to better themselves.  As a leader, you need to help your team reach their individual and collective potential.  For them to do so, you need to provide them with opportunities to develop and grow.

The Power of Constructive Criticism
Constructive criticism drives development and improvement.  If we do not know where we are falling short of our potential, we cannot ever expect to achieve it.  Giving constructive criticism lets our team know where they stand, provides clear boundaries of what’s expected of them and heightens accountability.  Incorporating constructive criticism into your leadership style also helps to encourage a growth mindset in your team; moving away from the idea that you can always blame someone or something else and that failure is a bad thing; to be avoided at all costs.  However, constructive criticism without praise can lead to disengagement, as employees feel undervalued, unappreciated and experience doubt over their own performance.

Finding the Balance
So how do we find the balance?  Carol Dweck has reported that for every one piece of praise we receive, we will receive fourteen pieces of criticism (although these are not all constructive).  If we consider for a moment the impact this is likely to have, it is clear to see why praise should outweigh constructive criticism on the balance scales.
Defining an exact praise to constructive criticism ratio is not practical, since people are all individual and respond in different ways (for more see Constructive Criticism – How do you take it?).  However, both are essential in achieving outstanding performance and realising both individual and team potential.  What we can take away from this is a need to heighten our awareness around how often, and the way in which, we are using praise and criticism.

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