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Three Keys to Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism is a gift that demonstrates caring and support

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Providing and receiving constructive criticism is a key activity in any leadership role, especially lab management. Anyone with knowledge of a process or a situation can provide criticism to someone when actions or behaviors are not what is needed or expected. However, it requires caring and kindness to also provide constructive criticism, which not only points out the error but also provides clear guidance about how the situation could be improved next time. Here are three things lab managers can do to improve their ability to give and receive constructive criticism around the lab:

#1 – Focus on the problem

When providing constructive criticism, focus on the problem, behavior, or action, not on the person. The target of the critical feedback is directed to what happened, not the attributes, personality, or talent of the individual. Provide clear evidence that a problem has occurred, and couple that with concise advice about how the situation could be improved. It is often helpful to provide direct examples of what could have been done or said better. Be patient when providing the feedback and take the time to answer any clarifying questions. Don’t assume that the individual already knows the better way to execute that action. Be sure to include sufficient detail that they can be more successful next time. 

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#2 – Support the individual

Simultaneously build up the person while tearing down the problem. Be explicit about the value the individual brings to the organization and that you have confidence in their ability to solve this problem. Use this teaching moment to enhance the work relationship. Take the time to help them recognize the root cause of the issue and ensure they have the knowledge to prevent a recurrence. People appreciate the opportunity to learn and improve, especially when the learning process isn’t too painful or embarrassing.

#3 – Say thank you

Constructive criticism is a gift. The appropriate response when receiving a gift is a clear and thoughtful thank you. Few people are truly comfortable when making mistakes or experiencing problems. Taking a deep breath and focusing on the fact that the other person is trying to help with constructive criticism can make the experience gentler. By thanking people who provide constructive criticism, you are more likely to receive it again in the future, which will help you learn, grow, and develop. It is much worse to just continue making the same mistakes because the people around you are afraid to bring the issues to your attention.

Including effective constructive criticism in your interactions with lab staff will help build a safer work environment by helping emotional and psychological safety grow in the lab’s culture.