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Learn from mistakes with constructive criticism

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Skilled managers use criticism constructively to improve practice - and welcome it themselves from their teams

Used constructively, criticism is one of the most useful management tools we have. Used destructively, it can ruin relationships, lower self esteem and encourage a bullying culture. The word itself has negative connotations.

Students receive positive and negative feedback on their work all the time, and clinicians analyse critical incidents to avoid repeating mistakes, discuss protocol and improve processes. Criticism is part of learning.

A skilled manager can give constructive criticism and use it to improve practice - and welcome criticism about the way she or he works.

Criticism can provoke negative responses from those on the receiving end. They may feel devastated, angry, undermined or simply numb.

Reactions to criticism are diverse: people become defensive, blame someone else, feel they are not good enough; cry; or, more positively, listen carefully and see what they can learn.

Dealing with criticism should be part of continuous professional development. Learning how to use and receive criticism will result in positive outcomes.

Effective managers will ensure that there are regular opportunities to take feedback on their performance. Their whole teams will contribute to analysis of processes and outcomes and ask: what went well? What went wrong? So what? Now what?

The skill is to present criticism constructively. Separate the behaviour from the individual and discuss learning from an incident in a way that will prevent reoccurrence and develop the individual and the team.

Obviously, there will be times when the action of an individual is dangerous, unnecessarily disruptive or provocative. Remedial action needs to be taken, following disciplinary procedures.

Learning from experience is hard - but it is even harder when you don’t.

ow to make criticism work for your team
● Always recognise and acknowledge mistakes. Never ignore them
● Listen carefully to any explanation and feed back your understanding of the incident for clarification. Create a common understanding
● Never blame a person except for a disciplinary offence
● Use constructive language: “Talk to me about…” “When this happened, what was the outcome?” “How could we do this differently?” “What should happen next?” “What help do you need?” “Who is the best person to support you?” “How can we apply what we’ve learnt to other situations?”
● Invite feedback on personal style, working practice and task delivery
● Develop a “no blame” culture, and find solutions rather than dwell on mistakes. Use continuous improvement as a working model
● Know your staff. Everyone responds in their own way. Support employee development by enabling staff to use self and team criticism to
move forward

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Readers' comments (1)

  • michael stone

    The theory that lessons should be learnt from mistakes, which could be described as constructive criticism, is clearly correct - but it has been my own experience that almsot nobody is keen to be criticised, and in large bodies such as PCTs it is virtually impossible to provide constructive feedback, because someone is inevitably 'responsible' for whatever it is which is defective in some way.

    And staff should not, have to raise complaints (except about the competence of individuals) face-to-face with their managers, who can discipline them (which often seems to happen, as managers are usually the people who would be seen to have a less-than-perfect 'system' in place.

    Academics and test pilots, learn from mistakes - indeed, they deliberately look 'for the bits we are getting wrong' - but most people do not like being criticised: = 'you are saying I am not doing my job properly, or trying to get me into trouble'.

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