The Fortune 500 Insider Network is our newest online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Terry Cavanaugh, CEO of Erie Insurance, has answered the question: How do you make criticism constructive?
First, let’s admit what criticism is: It’s judgment. Second, let’s admit how we feel about judgment: We don’t like to be on the receiving end of it.
Instead of trying to make criticism constructive, I suggest we change the dynamic altogether. Let’s take the concept of criticism out of the conversation, and create a way to interact that truly builds — constructs — a better outcome.
Most issues and actions have a multitude of ways to think about them and action plans to develop. I try to come into the conversation early with a variety of thoughts to help brainstorm how the project can be redirected or reconsidered.
I ask a lot of questions.
As a 6-foot-7-inch CEO, my words and tone can carry a lot of weight and my questions can sometimes spark defensiveness. There is always a balance needed in the timing and touch.
That’s why a small phrase like, “Help me understand,” can go a long way. Why are the project action steps not going well? Is it lack of resources? Has the execution been hampered by internal structure or external realities? Are the right people on the project?
I’ve learned that once the conversation is finished, I need to let go of the process and the outcome (given that it is not an issue that could impact the company’s reputation or brand). Letting go can be tough, especially when I may not be comfortable with the next steps. My wife reminds me that with four grown children, I learn this lesson again and again.
Finally, I’ve found that once a project or initiative or decision is complete, there is a great opportunity to reengage in the conversation. It’s when the stress and heat of the moment have passed that you’re able to gather data from a broad cross-section of the organization. A follow-up dialogue — and supporting after-action report — allows for a dissection of the issues and execution.
It’s a discovery process. What’s learned there is often helpful both in gaining further traction on the issue or project at hand, as well as strengthening the person’s learning muscle for future matches.
In the end, whether the conversation involves employees, colleagues or children, if I don’t let go, the other person can’t grow. That is, after all, another part of the constructive outcome, often with longer-term returns. It’s not just about achieving a result on a project, but ultimately building a better thinker, manager, leader or person.