Chapter 7: Individuals in Organizations

7.2 Praise & Criticism

According to Adler, Elmorst and Lucas (2010),  research indicates that “cognitive intelligence (IQ) takes a backseat to social intelligence  in determining outstanding job performance. Your IQ could be 145 and you could get a doctorate in business, but you’ll never break away from the pack unless your interpersonal skills are strong” (p. 110).

Social (or emotional) intelligence refers to the ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions when engaged in interpersonal interactions. Demonstrating social intelligence can be done via the skill of rhetorical sensitivity. People who are rhetorically sensitivity have the ability to get clear about what they are thinking/feeling, and then create a message that allows the other person the best ability to listen to the message. Notice that this skill has two focuses: self and other. A person who is rhetorically sensitive takes care of his/her needs, but also attends to the needs of other(s).  One ineffective alternative to being rhetorically sensitive is the person who acts as a noble self: only focused on taking care of his/herself. A noble self says things like “I just say it like it is, and if the other person cant handle it that is their problem!” Another equally ineffective alternative is a person who act as a reflector. A reflector is a person who doesn’t express their thoughts/feelings, and simply says whatever they think the other person wants to hear. The problem with both the noble self and the reflector is that they dont recognize the relational, dynamic nature of communication. To be an effective communicator in the workplace, people need to utilize the skills of rhetorical sensitivity, especially when faced with giving praise and criticism to others.

Giving Praise

Whether you are a manager, co-worker, customer service agent, or customer, there are multiple situations in which you may want to praise others. One goal for delivering praise is to make the other person feel appreciated. Another goal is to encourage the other to replicate their “good deed.” To do this, we need to use our rhetorical sensitivity skills by clearly expressing what we liked about their behavior, and delivering the message in a way that keeps the other listening. Adler et a[1]l. (2019)  offer the following tips for giving praise:

  1. Praise promptly: When you provide positive feedback on the spot, the other person is clear about what they did that you liked.
  2. Make praise specific: By describing exactly what you liked, the other person is more likely to replicate the behaviors. For example, if you said “good job today” your co-worker may not know what they did that reflected “good job.” But if you say “good job stepping in and helping me with the customers when we had a flood at the help desk” they know what they did, and are more likely to do it again.
  3. Praise progress, not just perfection: Praising progress can motivate people to keep improving their performance. By acknowledging that we recognize their improvements, even if not perfect, individuals feel appreciated and are more likely to keep striving to do better. An example of this might be “The draft proposal is a lot clearer. By adding in those details about the timeline it really helped clarify the process.”
  4. Relay praise: By letting folks know that others appreciate them, it can boost morale and future good behaviors. By letting others know that you’ve heard good things, you also spread good will.
  5. Go social with your praise: A final strategy to consider is sharing your praise publically. Some organizations have employee newsletters where a “kudo” about an employee can be shared with all. Social media platforms are also a way to praise employees or organizations for their good work. Giving praise publically, especially with respect to singling out an employee, need to be considered within the context of cultural norms (i.e., individualist societies value this more then collectivistic societies).

Giving Constructive Criticism

Unfortunately, there will also be times when we need to deliver difficult messages about problematic behaviors. While it is natural for the listener to feel a host of feelings (e.g., defensive, embarrassed, confused, angry, etcetera), our rhetorical sensitivity skills can help us deliver these messages in a way that  give the other person the best opportunity to stay present in the conversation. As with giving praise, Adler et al [2]l. (2019)  offer suggestions for delivering constructive criticism:

  1. Be accurate: Make sure you have the facts right before approaching the other person with the criticism. If you start with inaccurate information, you’ll lose credibility and the other’s attention.
  2. Focus on facts, not opinions: Next, make sure you are describing facts of the situation, and not your personal opinions or inferences. For example, you might say “Tracy, I noticed you’ve come in late the last 3 days,” as opposed to “Tracy, I’m noticing that you are disorganized in the mornings,” or “Tracy, it seems like you are becoming a slacker.”
  3. Limit criticism to one topics: Bringing up too many topics can create an adversarial conversation. People become overwhelmed by hearing all the things they need to change, and can become defensive wondering why they havent been kept apprised of all these things they are “doing wrong.”
  4. Show how the criticism can benefit the recipient: Contextualize your criticism by showing the other how changing their behaviors can help them. For example, if you say something like “I wanted to share this with you before our boss hears about it”, the other person is more apt to view your criticism and a gift not a condemnation.
  5. Deliver privately: No one likes to be embarrassed publically, so pulling the person aside to have a conversation is just common sense. By reducing distractions (e.g., others, ringing phones), your are able to reduce environmental and psychological noise and thus give the other person a better opportunity to stay present in the conversation.
  6. Address the problem before it grows: This doesn’t mean that we should constantly nitpick people’s behaviors, but let folks know a change is needed before it becomes a serious problem.
  7. Remain calm and professional (skills for responding non-defensively): A final strategy for delivering criticism is to recognize that the other person may respond in a highly defensive way, so it is important to stay calm and avoid creating a downward conflict spiral. In the next section, we will explore ways to respond non-defensively.

Responding non-defensively to critics

When faced with criticism, it is common for people to use a variety of defense mechanisms to mitigated the unpleasant information. Some of defense mechanisms include responding with denial (I didnt do it), counterattacks (you’re not perfect either), rationalization (I couldnt help it), and projection (its the fault of another person/event). If you find yourself reacting to criticism with one of these strategies, below are some new skills to help you stay present in the conversation. Similarly, if you hear someone respond to the constructive feedback you deliver by using a defense mechanism, you can employ one of these strategies to try and keep the conversation focused on the topic at hand.

  1. Ask for clarification: Sometimes by simply asking the other to say more, we can defuse a potentially heated discussion and keep things moving in a productive direction.
  2. Guess about details of the criticism: At times, the other person may not be able to clearly articulate their thoughts/feelings. In these situations we might offer a “guess” as a way to perception check.
  3. Paraphrase: Take a moment to paraphrase back what you think you just heard. This is helpful as it ensures everyone is on the same page, and is confirming for the other person (i.e., indicates you were listening).
  4. Ask what they want: By asking what the other person might want, you send a message that the other person matters to you, and that you are interested in their needs.
  5. Agree with the facts: If you agree with the facts as presented, you can illustrate the common ground you share with the other.
  6. Acknowledge their perception: You may not agree with their perception of the situation, but you may be able to validate them by saying that you understand their position.

Below are examples of each strategy based on the following scenario: You arrive late to a meeting. Later in the day your boss says “Your behaviors today are disrespectful to me and your coworker.”

Ask for specifics: What am I doing that seem disrespectful?

Guess about specifics: Do you feel I’m being disrespectful because I arrived to the meeting late today?”

Paraphrase (*best done when the message is longer then 1 sentence): “So you’re saying I’m acting disrespectful towards you and my coworkers.”

Ask what they want: “Would you like me to apologize to the others for arriving late today?”

Agree with the facts: “You’re right, I was late today.”

Acknowledge the critics perspective: “I can see how my tardiness would look disrespectful.”

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Organizational Communication Anthology by See each page for attribution information. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.