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How to Give (And Receive) Constructive Criticism

How to Give (And Receive) Constructive Criticism

Renee Weisman | Excelle

Recently, when I was giving a talk on how gender differences affect the workplace, a member of the audience gave me a new example to use in my sessions. She had been teaching an online course and noted a difference between her male and female students when a poorly worded problem was included in the assignments.

The male students wrote back, “This is a dumb question!” or “This problem is stupid” or some other criticism of the assignment. The female students however, commented, “I must be missing something here” or “I don’t understand this problem”. 100% of the males who commented found fault with the assignment. 100% of the females who commented thought they were doing something wrong!

This example demonstrates that men and women react differently to confusing and difficult situations. Men typically will externalize the issue, blaming the circumstances, the problem or the person who created the issue. Women typically will internalize the issue and blame themselves.

This also applies to constructive criticism. A man will typically hear your advice in terms of how the SITUATION could have been better whereas a woman will typically hear it in terms of what SHE should have done differently. Understanding this subtle but significant difference can make you a better manager, coworker, educator or parent so let’s discuss how to provide constructive criticism so that a man realizes he has some part in the cause and a women doesn’t take it more personally that you intended.

Perhaps you think I am oversimplifying this but I have seen it time and again in my mentoring of male and female engineers. As I described in Winning in a Man’s World, I remember two mentees, male and female coming separately to see me after their performance ratings had been dropped.

The man blamed the reason for the drop in the economic situation and the fact that several clients had held back orders. The woman blamed herself, feeling that she couldn’t do the job anymore and was considering a career change. Now I am not saying that either of these mentees had it right- the economy was tough but the male knew that going in and might have expanded his client base.

The woman, however, took the entire blame and was ready to quit. It took some time but I was able to get both to understand that they had some portion of the blame but that external circumstances and just plain good or bad luck can also have an impact.

Both mentees raised their performance ratings the following year and were subsequently promoted, but I do wonder if we hadn’t had those sessions whether the male would have worked as hard the following year and the female would have moved on.

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