How to Critique a Colleague's Bad Decisions in 4 Steps
When you frame it the right way, you can give feedback in a way that gets the other person on your side.
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A couple of years ago, my tap-dancing, genius MIT mechanical engineer, New York musical theater actor, and accountabilibuddy Timmy and I started helping each other be more productive. You can read about that in my episode about protecting work/life balance. Timmy is on to a new adventure: he’s learning to program computers. The class he’s taken has put him on a group project, building the control software for a missile that will someday be used by a renegade group of zombie hunters to enslave what remains of the post-apocalyptic world of 2024. They added him to a project team that was already up and running.
He’s thrilled! His new teammates are great people. They’ve started the project already. They’ve laid the groundwork. They’ve already programmed the foundation of the system and they’ve made a lot of mistakes. Their scripts don’t work. Their builds don’t build. They’ve simply created bad software.
Timmy is pulling his hair out (which is a shame, because he has pretty much flawless hair, like a Peter Parker crossed with a teenage Clark Kent). He wants to call his team together and tell them, “It’s an honor to be part of your team. Unfortunately you’re all incompetent boobs. Your designs are wrong. Your scripts are broken. You have no idea what you’re doing.” Then, of course, he’ll tell them the right way to do everything. They’ll be so grateful that from then on they'll listen to everything he has to say and adopt all his ideas without challenging them.
They’ll also have him kidnapped, roll him naked in Oreo ice cream cake, and leave him tied to the top of a mound of Texas fire ants. They might even test out the missile on him. This would be a terrible waste of an otherwise scrumptious Oreo ice cream cake. There’s gotta be a better way.
And there is. When you want to give your co-workers feedback that their design sucks, do it in a way that has them thanking you for it.
Giving Your Coworkers Constructive Feedback
- Figure out why you are criticizing them
- Ask questions to lead them to the mistakes
- Let your colleague propose the solutions
- Be prepared to learn
Let's dive deeper into each.
1. Figure out why you are criticizing them
The first step to lovingly criticizing your loyal teammates is to understand what you want to criticize them for.
When you think someone’s work is no good, that’s because you think it falls short in some way. It’s supposed to accomplish something that it doesn’t. For example, a marketing report may be intended to give readers a good overview of market trends, but it has no graphs that illustrate the trends. Or Timmy can see instantly that the way the team has designed the guidance system, aiming the missile anywhere in the northern hemisphere will erroneously cause it to detonate on the launchpad.
If there are several shortcomings to their solution, pick the one that is easiest to understand and will cause the greatest damage if not fixed. But keep notes on the other shortcomings. You never know when they’ll come in handy.
2. Ask questions to lead them to the mistakes
You can’t just point out the flaws to them. “Gee, you imbecile, can’t you see that your marketing report doesn’t even show any trends?” That won’t work. I’ve tried it. I didn’t make any friends at all. Fortunately, fire ants hadn’t yet appeared in North America.
Instead, make it seem as though the problem is you, and you just can’t figure out how the heck all that high falutin’ stuff works. You’re just not quite as bright as they are, and you really need their help.
“Hey, guys. I don’t really understand the guidance system here. Can you walk me through what happens when we aim the missile in the northern hemisphere? It seems to cause the detonation system to go kaboom. Could you help me understand where I’m going wrong?”
Now instead of you coming across as superior, talking down to them from on high, you’re the meek, newbie team member, asking the Knowledgable Old Ones for their sage advice.