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Constructive criticism keeps top talent engaged — here’s how to do it right.

A workplace ‘rebel’ could be your team’s greatest asset, but constructive criticism is key to keep them engaged.

There’s a strong business case for chaos” – HBS Professor Francesca Gino is musing over some of her findings from the past ten years. Chaos, she concludes, leads to creativity and can change everything. The way you do business, the way you manage teams and individuals and even the way you parent.

Chaos stems from breaking the rules, defying convention, and going against perceived wisdom. It stems from rule breakers, from creatives, from rebels. 

Professor Gino isn’t plucking these theories from thin air. It comes on the back of a ten-year-study which has led to her second book: Rebel Talent, Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and in Life.

Part of this fascinating study is a deep dive into management techniques, including of course the evergreen topic of constructive criticism and feedback in organizations. Key to getting to grips with her helpful insights on this area is understanding the narrative she has created about the rebel. Indeed, the very act of giving or receiving feedback is very much a part of the rebel personification, something F4S has also had a chance to explore in some depth.

More on that to come, but first a quick overview of Professor Gino, whose accolades include a mention in the Top 40 Business Professors Under 40 and one of the World’s Most Influential Management Thinkers.

After graduating with a BA in Business Economics from the University of Trento, Italy, Gino went on to become a visiting fellow at Harvard before completing her PhD and MS in Economics and Management at the University of Pisa. In 2015 she gained an MA at Harvard University where she works today as the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration and the Unit Head of Negotiation, Organizations & Markets at Harvard Business School. She also has four children.

Alongside her teaching career Gino has researched and written two fascinating books, one on Rebel Talent and the other titled – Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan. It’s Gino’s most recent work on management and talent that provides us with this fresh lens in which to view constructive criticism.

Constructive Criticism: How it can nurture top talent and how it can go so wrong

Giving constructive criticism is like baking:  accuracy and timing are everything. Measured properly and given the right amount of time to cook, that cake is a light, bouncy masterpiece. Too long and it’s toast. Much the same is true for giving feedback though it must be said, the onus of responsibility is not all on the giver.

Done well, feedback given and received in the right spirit and then acted upon can be a business game changer. How? By creating a meaningful change in behaviour – corporately, as part of a team or as an individual. If we zoom in on the individual, this is where top talent can be hot housed and nurtured. 

Gino references her colleague Amy Edmondson’s work when talking about the benefits of feedback in allowing talent to engage, explore and learn in a safe and encouraging environment. She said: “Psychological safety is a group climate in which individuals feel they can speak truthfully and openly about problems without fear of reprisal. Decades of research on this concept by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson indicate that psychologically safe environments not only help organizations avoid catastrophic errors but also support learning and innovation.”

It's this freedom to innovate and grow that allows your talented team members to fully explore their skills and feel confident that they have the support of not only their managers but peers as well.

More on how to achieve this state in the Getting it Right section, we need to focus on what goes into creating quite the opposite effect.

Death by a Thousand Cuts: how poor feedback slowly kills a business

Rather a gruesome image perhaps but it’s a useful analogy. Very often a major failing in business, and in life, can start off as a series of small, barely noticeable mistakes. A lack of communication, a feedback session scheduled in the middle of a stressful project or inadequate follow up and pretty soon what should have been a constructive, two-way dialogue ends up a defensive show down.

When feedback goes wrong, it goes very wrong but the way back onto the right path isn’t always clear and is often lost in the weeds of “we’ve always done it that way”. A top-heavy, educational approach can lead to similar alienation and low reflection and patience. No-one likes to feel talked down to or made to feel inadequate. Gino describes the kind effects that stem from mismanaged feedback sessions:

“In general, people have a hard time with feedback. Think about the people at work who are part of your network — the individuals who help you improve your performance or provide you with emotional support when you are going through a tough spell. If you’re like most people, the colleagues who come to mind are those you get along with and who have a good impression of you. But has anyone in your network actually given you tough feedback? Your likely answer is “not many.” 

As I discovered in recent research I conducted with Paul Green of Harvard Business School and Brad Staats of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, people tend to move away from those who provide feedback that is more negative than their view of themselves. They do not listen to their advice and prefer to stop interacting with them altogether. It seems that people tend to strengthen their bonds with people who only see their positive qualities.”

And here is that key point again: 

You are unlikely to be listened to if the feedback you give is more negative than your colleague’s view of themselves.

If you thought giving (or receiving) constructive criticism was a breeze, think again.

What makes a ‘rebel’ and why you should nurture yours

What might sound negative, frightening even is, according to Gino, quite the opposite. Yes, a rebel within an organization might be challenging but they will also be creative and embrace qualities we might see in the F4S term ‘disruptors’ such as high internal reference, high difference and low patience. But to think that the rebel isn’t capable of reflection and calm is a mistake to avoid. Here’s how Gino describes her own inner rebel:

“We love what’s predictable and comfortable. I wanted to be a bit more provocative. We think of rebels, I think, in the wrong way. I want to focus in on people who break rules that hold people back.” 

She goes on to talk about several inspiring rule breakers that have pushed the boundaries of their own businesses for the better, including Italian chef Massimo Buttura. Buttura famously does the unthinkable in reworking Italian staples for his Michelin starred restaurant, constantly innovating and daring to break culinary rules.

The five key motivations that make up a workplace ‘rebel’

But what about in other contexts, are rebels always the moody, solitary figures we might imagine them to be? Quite the opposite. In fact, in Gino’s rebel we find someone who tends (though everyone is different) to embrace five key traits: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity and authenticity.

It’s these traits of perspective and authenticity we might argue help make the rebel a good colleague, and not the lone wolf or contrarian we fear. 

“Creating a business case for chaos.”

What’s fascinating about the rebel and where it spills over from the world of work into other aspects of our lives is how nurturing these instincts can lead, Gino claims, to greater fulfilment and more meaningful relationships. In conversation she gives the example of parenting, of allowing her children the chance to let their natural curiosity lead them to explore their environment learning as they do. Creating a business case for chaos.

As adults too, the rebel instinct encourages us to do the same. Staying curious, not assuming we have all the answers and valuing authenticity. With this in mind, we circle back to why being a rebel can be an active advantage in giving and receiving constructive criticism.

Think rebels shy away from self-reflection, and thus struggle to receive constructive criticism? Think again.

Gino says: “Rebels are actually pretty high in being reflective. They are also people who buy into the idea that others can grow and that their role, as leaders and colleagues, is for them to provide the conditions for others to thrive. So, they are willing to give others constructive feedback and be supportive as recipients continue on their improvement journey.”

Rebels welcome feedback, they are likely to reflect on its content and explore how to incorporate change into their own practices. But here’s the thing, we can’t all be rebels and that’s fine too. If you don’t find yourself scoring highly in motivations that reflect the rebel’s motivations (and there are several types), that’s perfectly fine. Every organization should be able to create a space for the myriad of motivations that make up an effective workforce.

Not sure how? This article on improving team dynamics might help.

Getting constructive criticism right

It’s easy to pinpoint how giving and receiving feedback can go so wrong. Chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of some poorly handled feedback in your own working life. We know what happens when it goes wrong and we know how it goes wrong, now let’s turn our attention to getting it right.

On a practical level, Gino offers three pointers: 

  • Focus on the positives more than the negatives
  • Be specific, narrow down exactly what actions or behaviours you want to talk about, with examples
  • Talk about the impact of these behaviours

In an article written for the Harvard Business Review entitled Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration, Gino cites six key training areas where both giver and receiver might benefit. These areas include: 

  • learning to listen, 
  • practicing empathy, 
  • making people comfortable with feedback, 
  • teaching people to lead and follow, 
  • speaking with clarity and avoiding abstractions 
  • and finally, training people to have win-win interactions.

Possibly the area that jumped out at you was teaching people to become comfortable with feedback. As discussed earlier, the onus of responsibility doesn’t just fall on the person presenting the feedback. There are steps we can all take to ensure we get the best from the process as a recipient.

Talking to your colleague about how listening to constructive criticism makes you feel, discussing how to use it in a positive way and even giving feedback on giving feedback are ways that reflect rebel talent characteristics and can be nurtured even if you’re not sure you fit into that description. 

Learning and practicing intentional communication is key to giving effective, painless feedback.

Perhaps it’s time too, to recognize that without some commentary on your performance there’s very little chance of growth. Isn’t it time to become curious about doing things differently? Of finding out what might make your role more exciting, new and fresh by pushing some boundaries? Dare you ask your colleagues or your manager for a helpful critique of your performance? Your inner rebel is saying yes.

TL:DR? Here’s what you need to know about constructive criticism

Constructive criticism is hard. Done badly it can lead to hurt feelings, a feeling of disempowerment and low motivation. At worst it can damage self-esteem and lead to a downturn in performance – the complete opposite of the intended outcome.

Badly handled feedback is often a slow burn. It’s how companies have always done things. Little thought is put towards timing, content or process. The receiver often feels talked down to, the giver left frustrated that little seems to change by way of performance. Often businesses will give up altogether.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Done well, constructive criticism can make a hugely positive impact, challenging perceived wisdom, offering learning across the board and nurturing talent. To achieve this both giver and receiver, according to Professor Francesca Gino, should embrace their inner rebel.

This rebel isn’t afraid to ask questions, to push boundaries and accept feedback. This rebel is reflective and will actively think about the issues raised. They aren’t afraid to be innovative and try new things. They value the growth of others within their teams and want colleagues to succeed. They might sound challenging, they might be different but even if you don’t feel like one, take some to search for your innate rebel talent and consider bringing it out into the open. You might be surprised at what you can achieve.

Find out if you’re a workplace rebel. Take the free F4S assessment today and check out your results for ‘difference’, ‘alternatives’, ‘internal reference’ and ‘indifference’.

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