Delivering Criticism

Delivered correctly, criticism can provide an opportunity to grow & improve

Some of the most successful fire service professionals I’ve worked with believe the only reason they were able to succeed in the fire service was that they allowed themselves to fail at some point in their career. These fire service colleagues knew how to benefit from the criticism they received.

Most people attach a negative connotation to the word “criticism” because it brings to mind being taunted as children or put down for no apparent reason. But criticism can be a very positive thing; the capacity to handle criticism and grow from it is an important aspect of success.

No matter how well you perform your duties, some people will find reasons to criticize you. No one likes having their work belittled, the soundness of their decisions questioned or their integrity challenged, but it’s how you deal with criticism that determines your success.

Consider the Source
Understanding where criticism is coming from is key in knowing how best to handle it.

A co-worker may criticize you in a misguided attempt to spotlight their supposed superior capabilities. Criticism from a citizen, on the other hand, is more often based on emotion over a delayed response, poor service delivery or negative behaviors demonstrated in public.

Tip: When receiving criticism from a member of the public, don’t get defensive, blame someone else or issue denials. Experience has shown me that falling on the sword and offering an apology to a member of the public often makes the issue go away. (For more on dealing with irate citizens, see “Not Always Right,” p. 116.)

A Chance to Improve
Most criticism is genuinely intended to be constructive. Fighting back, arguing or being disrespectful in the face of constructive criticism serves no purpose except to turn what may be a minor correction into a major issue. Willingness to accept constructive criticism and act upon it is a sign of emotional maturity and professionalism.

Example: A fire captain who worked for me was doing his job — the same great job he always does day in and day out, but he received a complaint, which led to a lengthy investigation that resulted in the recommendation that the captain be punished administratively.

I chose a different approach based on my review and assessment of the same facts. The captain was summoned to my office fully expecting something “bad” to happen. Because the captain is a well adjusted officer, he was able to accept the criticism professionally. Additionally, I was able to deliver a positive message to him in a negative setting with positive results.

Following are a few methods I used during this meeting that I found to be successful.

  • Omit character traits. Suppress the urge to link your critique to aspects of the person’s personality.
  • Use appropriate language. Using terminology germane to the issue keeps criticism on a professional level.
  • Keep your emotions in check. Offering constructive criticism requires a neutral, calm delivery.
  • Focus on what can be done, not what’s been done. Refer to specific opportunities for improvement, and avoid singling out inadequacies.
  • Get your facts straight. Few things can torpedo your authority more quickly than unknowingly basing your comments on factual errors.
  • Empathize. One of the more potent steps you can take before delivering constructive criticism is also simple and compassionate: Stop for a moment and remind yourself what it’s like to be in their shoes.

A Final Word
I asked my staff — six personnel with more than 130 years of shared work experience — under what circumstances they would best react to criticism. They said: with an open mind, an opportunity for growth, face to face, forthright, in private, without aggression or passive aggressiveness, with suggestions for correction and improvement, and without sarcasm. They also indicated that when criticized, you should thank your boss for bringing it to your attention and tell them you’ll do your best to improve.

Giving good constructive criticism probably won’t win you too many immediate friends, but neither should it create a host of enemies. When delivered with a consistently proper balance of tact and authority, it will earn you something better: an enduring respect and a greater degree of productivity from the people around you.

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