Constructive criticism is the fuel for learning and improving



One of the things I try to do as a mentor and in writing this blog is to point founders, mentors, and their associates to material that is highly relevant to startups, even if it might not seem so from its source, author or title.

Today’s article The Rare Workers Who Thrive on Negative Feedback by Sue Shellenberger is a great example of how you can take advice aimed at corporate workers and apply it in your startup venture. As usual The Journal provides a great one-line summary in the article’s sub-title: Strivers seek out constructive criticism on the job, viewing it as a necessary way to shore up their weaknesses.

This article tends to reinforce two of my startup maxims: one, backpatters are your worst enemy, and two, I’ve never seen anyone improve from being praised. I learned both lessons the hard way. By not seeking out negative feedback or constructive criticism I let my friends and family, who naturally want to praise you, reinforced some of my startup ideas that objective criticism might have caused me to rethink at the least and abandon at the most. My natural tendency is to be hyper-critical, but I learned quickly that most people do not like being criticized and in fact it tends to depress their performance rather than to improve it.

To remodel the way I provide feedback I have delivered a method for delivering constructive criticism that makes it easier to tak. Instead of jumping immediately into my negative feedback, I look for what the person is doing right and lead with that. My feedback might be something like, “George, you are an excellent writer and you are making a great contribution to our marketing communications. But go back and take a look at your past documents. I think you may notice that they tend to be both somewhat wordy and all text. Here’s two ways you might try to solve both problems, try substituting images for some of the text and think of your text as a caption for the image. What do you think? Any other ideas you have on how to tighten up your pieces?”

It’s imperative that you do two things: one, check with the person getting the feedback for their reaction and be open to it, and two, involve them in how they can improve their performance. Don’t put it all on yourself. In fact you might not even provide any examples, just ask them to think about ways to improve. And they shouldn’t have to do that on the spot, perhaps suggest that they review their feedback with colleagues and come back to you in a couple of days – no longer – with ideas on how they can improve. Providing constructive criticism as a question rather than a flat statement reduces people’s tendency to be defensive and involves them in seeking to answer the question. That changes what may seem like an adversarial relationship into a collaborative one. We often are completely unaware of our flaws, as I was, until I was told by one of my manager that I was far too critical of her staff.

One thing I love about pro football players is that they strive to improve every day, and even the great ones, like Tom Brady, seek out constructive criticism. Not because they enjoy being criticized but because they see being coached up as a step toward their goal: being great.

The Journal cites recent research that those who actively seek out criticism and feedback tend to be strivers, as virtually all professional athletes need to be, as there’s always another recent draft pick looking to take their job. As Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and author of “Insight,” a book on self-awareness. says, “The difference between the highly self-aware and the rest of us is that they push through that discomfort and ask for feedback anyway,”

An excellent tip that the article provides is for venture leaders and managers to set an example for their teams by actively seek feedback on their own performance. We do that at MIT VMS mentoring sessions by checking in with the founders once or twice during the 90-minute sessions by asking questions like, “Are we being helpful? Should we be taking a different tack or focus? Are we successfully addressing the agenda you set for the meeting?” These questions not only give the mentee an opportunity to redirect the session, it also makes all the mentors – sometimes we have as many as four or five – ask themselves those same questions.

Mentors please keep the following quoted paragraph in mind, as many of our mentees are novices in both business and startups:

Experts in their fields tend to be motivated by criticism, and to see it as a sign of how well they’re progressing toward their goals, according to a 2011 study co-wrote by Dr. Finkelstein. Novices are more likely to seek praise, and to interpret it as a sign of whether to remain committed to the goals they’ve set, the study shows.

One thing I never did was to deliver any kind of criticism, even that softened by accompanying praise, on Fridays. I didn’t want my staff member to potentially be stewing all weekend over my feedback with no opportunity to ask me to clarify or amplify what I said until Monday. The Journal’s article adds a similar tip:

Giving appraisals early in the day, when employees’ self-control hasn’t been depleted by fatigue or stress, may improve the chances of their taking it well, according to a 2016 study led by Rachel Ruttan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto.

Feedback and criticism is a major element in learning and improving. Thus the one criticism I have of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service is that we mentors never get any feedback on our performance! But I was told that founders are regularly surveyed on how their mentors are helping them, or not. And we mentors are to assume we are doing a good job if we don’t hear anything from the VMS office to the contrary. What VMS does that I do to help mentors improve is regularly schedule mentoring best practices presentations by VMS staffer Michael Foster. And that’s a practice you might want to emulate in your own organization.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: