Giving constructive criticism that doesn't sting

September 11, 2016

Giving constructive criticism that doesn't sting

"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. The purpose of constructive criticism is to improve the outcome." (Wikipedia.org)

Account managers are required to give feedback to people on a regular basis. This may include feedback from a client for your internal team (creatives, developers, strategists, etc); or it could be your own feedback that you are giving to either your internal team or your client.

"Constructive criticism" is not merely the act of passing on a set of author's alterations on a job. It relates to when you have to contradict, challenge or change a person's creative or strategic thinking. It's having to convey that someone (either you, your client or another stakeholder) does not agree with what has been said or done, and that - if appropriate - the work should be altered. Nobody likes to hear that their ideas or designs are not hitting the mark - especially those people who are easily offended, or those who are particularly wedded to their work.

True story:

An Account Director approached one of his agency designers, slapped a printout of the designer's work on the desk, and - in front of the studio team - proceeded to tell the designer that the work was s%@# and that he was to redo it immediately.

A tip: this type of "blunt force" technique may get you quick results, but it will only serve to foster bitterness and resentment within your team. 100% guaranteed.

The ability to give empathetic critique is a challenge for some people - especially those who set high standards and expectations for themselves and others. However, it is a skill that can and needs to be learned.

 

How to give constructive criticism

Be kind. People like kind people, and will usually return like-for-like. This means that whatever you model to your team will (hopefully) be mirrored back to you. Showing kindness in your delivery of constructive criticism will pay dividends in the long run.

Include the "why". Constructive criticism should always include an explanation of why something needs to be changed, not just what needs to be changed. Explaining solid rationale behind changes always helps to take the sting out of critique.

Conveying an opinion. At times you will have to pass on critique that is based on someone's personal opinion or taste (one colour instead of another; a circle instead of a square, etc). This type of criticism can be taken as an affront to a designer's creativity. Unless there are sound reasons to push back with your client, the best you can do is to relay the request in an understanding and gentle way, reinforcing your designer and the good work they do.

One-to-one. Unless the constructive criticism is on a campaign level and contains learnings for the wider team, then it should be given on a one-to-one basis. It should also be delivered out of ear-shot of other team members, and directly to the person involved (e.g. not via their boss, direct reports or colleagues).

 

You can choose to be one of two types of account managers: (1) the type that your creative team loves to see walk through the door; or (2) the type that makes your team run for cover. Learning to give empathetic, constructive feedback will go a long way to ensuring you are account manager type #1.

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