January 14, 2013

An important difference

Is the internet the best place to attempt to provide constructive criticism? Should it be offered anonymously by complete strangers? That is open to much debate. But the problem I see is many people who claim to be offering constructive criticism have little to no understanding of what it is or how to do it.

According to Wikipedia, constructive criticism is, "the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one."

Providing true constructive criticism comes from a desire to see the other person improve and/or succeed. In other words, it is given in the spirit of good will.

This article offers some fantastic advice on how to provide constructive criticism. It outlines a six-step process:
  1. Use the Feedback Sandwich method (positive-improvement-positive)
  2. Focus on the situation, not the person
  3. Be specific with your feedback
  4. Comment on things which can be actioned upon
  5. Give recommendations on how to improve
  6. Don't make assumptions
The person providing the constructive criticism should also have extensive, firsthand experience with the intended recipient.

I can remember times in my former career when I was offered constructive criticism by managers. When done well, it did enable me to improve and advance. I welcomed and appreciated it.

There were also times I questioned the intent and delivery of professional criticism. In those cases, I made the decision not to internalize it or take action based on the comments in question.

All those examples, however, involved in person, one-on-one communication between myself and a manager in a work setting. It is a very different scenario when an individual or group offers criticism via the internet.
Here are some things commonly seen online that do not constitute constructive criticism:

  • Disagreeing with someone's point of view, life choices or parenting style
  • Cursing at and/or calling someone names
  • Ganging up on someone and attacking/defaming her en masse
  • Making sweeping, general statements about a person or group 
  • Criticizing an individual's appearance, personality, characteristics...
  • Harassing or threatening someone

Much of the above behavior can be considered cyberbullying, which is defined as, "the use of the Internet and related technologies to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner" (Wikepedia). It is very important that we be able to differentiate between the two, just as we need to understand what true civil discourse is - and isn't.

People who engage in cyberbullying behavior are rarely able to recognize what they are doing is wrong. They defend their actions by claiming they are simply offering constructive criticism or engaging in harmless snarkiness.

The Urban Dictionary defines snark as the "use of sarcasm or malice in speech." The simple fact is snark is often thinly-veiled bullying. Many people think snark is funny. It can also be cruel. And that is never OK.

As more and more interaction takes place online, it behooves us to not only choose our words carefully, but also to be honest with ourselves about our intentions. And to expect to be held accountable for our actions.

Making excuses does not excuse bad behavior in any form or context.

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