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Should I Share My Wise Criticism?

Situation 1: When I received an e-newsletter from a business associate recently, I read the beginning of one of his articles, then clicked on the link that said Read more. The link brought me to his blog, where I noticed that the article was five months old. Although the information was still useful, I felt let down by the stale date.


Should I tell my associate that presenting an old blog post as a fresh article in a newsletter makes it seem as though he has nothing new to say?


Situation 2: I received an email from a new human resources employee who now works at one of my longstanding client companies. Her email was sprinkled with obvious grammar errors.


Should I give her some advice about her errors, which make her seem less than professional?


What do you think? Should I share my wise criticism?


I could–but only if I want to alienate people and threaten good work relationships.


It is not our job to change other people or their behavior.


Well, it is our job if we are their manager. It may be our job if their less than stellar performance threatens our success or our company's. It is our job if their behavior is dangerous. And it is our job if they are children.


Otherwise, stay out of it.


The current issue of my e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work, features the article "Making Comments Without Making Enemies." If you would like to read it, subscribe at no cost here. Point 11, one of my favorites in the article, relates to the current topic:

11. Don't comment if it is not your job to do so and you have not been asked for an opinion. It is no one's responsibility to give constructive feedback to the world. Assume that if people have not asked for your comments, they do not want them.


Even if you feel compelled to share your expert opinion of another's website, blog, office decor, clothing, parenting skills, or thought process, don't do it! Your treatment for someone else's problem is likely to be a bitter pill they will not swallow no matter how expert your views are. If you are in a critical mood, focus instead on how you can improve your own skills, traits, appearance, productivity, world view, etc. 


Have you learned any lessons in giving or getting unsolicited criticism? Please share them. I promise not to criticize!



Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “Should I Share My Wise Criticism?”

  • I agree with your advice, even though it can be infuriating. I once wrote to a columnist at our local paper when he had confused “elusive” with “illusive.” He replied with a condescending, veiled insult about how he was sure that even I make mistakes occasionally. Of course I don’t read his column anymore! And my criticism just generated bad feelings on both sides, so it was unconstructive.

  • Yes, I totally agree. I think you’ve got it right in saying it is not my job to critique unless it affects my livelihood or is dangerous, or they are my children.

    I have, like most people, given “constructive” criticism when it was not asked for. Of course, the person responded defensively and I just made the situation worse as Val Span said above. I’m learning to keep it to myself now, though it is tough!

  • Lynn:

    People need to be told the truth in a constructive manner. That’s what coaching and mentoring is all about. Even if we have a purely friendly relationship with another person, we owe it them to point out objective, empirical truths

    Remember that no less an authority than Norman Vincent Peale, legendary author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” said: “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise then saved by criticism.”

  • Greetings, Lynn

    Okay, let’s conduct a short experiment. I read your piece on the advice of my VA, and I agree with your suggestion — even though I often violate it and give unsolicited feedback (esp. to people I know and care about). Which I’m going to do now to you.

    But first, what I would normally do is ask permission: “I noticed something amiss on your homepage. Would you like me to tell you?”

    But in your case, I don’t know you, and I’m not going to ask your permission; I’m just going to lay it on you. So watch your own reaction to this.

    I signed up for your newsletter, and was then offered a free article, “Rules for Email Etiquette.” I clicked on it only to discover that it was a pdf download. Since many people are wary of such downloads (esp. from strangers) I recommend that you either:
    — tell people ahead of time it’s a pdf, or
    — link to the article on your blog or website.

    Okay, so there’s my unsolicited picky-picky feedback. How did you react? My guess is that you will either ignore it, or you will agree with me and change, but that you won’t be upset.

    So here’s another take on this issue: When someone, even a stranger, takes the time to respond to me or give me feedback online, I’m delighted that they are paying attention! It’s means somebody is reading my stuff.

    If somebody points out a typo on my home page, I’m either grateful and correct it, or I’m a fool.

    A couple of years ago, this woman called me and said, “I went to your website and it was awful. So dated! But I only called because my friend said I had to talk with you.” I was devastated! But since then I’ve redone my website, and she became a client.

    So I guess I have to agree with Mike Consol’s post above.

    I’m biased, because I’m in the business of giving hard-headed feedback. But I have a strong preference for hanging out with people who want to hear the truth and will tell me the truth.


  • Hello Lynn,
    It’s always a pleasure to read your blog.

    Suggest Rather Than Criticize

    What is the use of doing something if we are not prepared to be criticized by others?
    I believe it is an amazing tool to help others and ourselves if we can share valuable information. To me, it would be unfair to both parties if the need to correct error was there, but the fear of “hurting” someone’s feelings blocked a learning experience.
    One approach I use for sharing is to “suggest” as opposed to “criticize”. Another is to refer to the error in a personal way by saying “If it were me, I would do, say or make, this or that change to enhance the effectiveness of your message. In this way the author is given a choice to ignore or improve. If they ignore, it tells you where the seriousness of that person lies. If they improve, you have done your good deed of the day.
    If one takes the time to share an experience that proves to be more efficient, I would be most appreciative.
    Any suggestions are welcomed!

  • Hi, Mike Consol. Thanks for commenting. I am stuck on the phrase “objective, empirical truths.” Isn’t much of what gets shared as feedback actually opinion or feeling rather than truth?

    If we go back to my original post, it was my opinion that my associate’s link to an old blog post was disappointing. If I wrote to tell him my view, he might respond that he knew he hadn’t made the best choice but that he had no time to write something new. Was it really my place to put him in a position to admit that he isn’t managing his time well–or not well enough for me?

    If I told the HR employee about her errors, she might be embarrassed and not write to me again. She may even have recognized the errors after writing to me and hoped I wouldn’t notice. If she is making errors consistently, it is her supervisor’s job to give her feedback and opportuntities to improve her skills. It’s also possible that the employee’s view (her truth) is that it was more important to write to me than to take the time to write to me perfectly.

    I agree that it’s appropriate to give constructive feedback to people we coach or mentor. Whether it is official or unofficial mentoring, the feedback has to be an understood and accepted part of the relationship.

  • Hi, Mike Van Horn. Please thank your VA for sharing the information with you.

    I appreciate your clever experiment! You are right–I am not upset about your feedback. At the same time, I have already considered how I want to present the email tips. So if you wrote to tell me your opinion (outside the experiment), you would be spending your valuable time to tell me something I have already considered. Remember, the way I have handled the email download is not an error–it is simply not the way you prefer. Is it important that I know that?

    In contrast, a stranger from Salt Lake City phoned me to tell me that I had mentioned “pubic” classes (rather than “public” classes) on my website. I was very grateful she took the time to let me know about my obvious error. Yet both Val Span and S Freeman, who commented above, noted the negative response they received to unsolicited feedback, and Val’s appears to have been a straightforward correction.

    If you are in the business of giving hard-headed feedback (an interesting choice of words), then you are doing your job when you give people feedback. That makes perfect sense.

    I enjoyed hearing from you.

  • Lynn:

    Misspelled words are an example of object, empirical information. Either a word is spelled correct is it isn’t (not counting American and British differences over words such as color and colour.)

    Yes, the woman in question might not have written to you again it you had pointed out these mistakes. Then again, she might have written to everyone else under the sun and spelled her words correctly from there forward and would have never forgotten the woman who brought this embarrassing shortcoming to her attention.

    Keep in mind that in this day and age of spell checking programs and internet-based dictionaries, there’s no excuse for studding a document with misspellings. It not only makes a person look ignorant but lazy.

    I’ll concede your point on your associate’s link to an old blog post. Perhaps it wasn’t your place in that instance to comment.

    The larger point I’m making is that people with expertise and coaching credentials shouldn’t be too reticent to take the initiative in offering constructive criticism and helping others. And professionals should be open to constructive criticism if they hope to continuously improve their performance. If such matters don’t concern them, my guess would be they won’t be viable members of a modern workforce for very long.

    One final point. I know people who are told by their family and friends that something they’ve written — a magazine article, a novel — is wonderful. My take was that it was deplorable and they were being done a disservice by loved ones who were either ignorant of good writing or didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth.

    Did I shred the authors of the pieces I’m referring to? No, because good writing is truly a subjective matter (beyond proper spelling, grammar, etc.). What I did do is say to never trust friends or family members because they are not professionals and view anything you do through a different prism. Submit your writing to lots of magazine editors, literary agents, etc., people who don’t know you and will judge the piece based solely on its merits. If it sells or at least draws interest, you know you’re on the right track. If not, rethink your efforts.

  • I think I would leave typos alone – everyone makes mistakes. Although I do know a journalism professor who writes the NY Times every time he finds an error because of their claim of checking and rechecking to the point that their articles can be used as reference sources. His logic is that if they claim to be perfect, then they should find out when they’re not.

    However, if an error has serious consequences, I would point it out. For instance, I recently pointed out to the digital editor of my local paper that their domain name had been dropped from their RSS feeds. The consequence was that every click to an article resulted in a error message. I just added the domain name in manually so I could read the articles but it was annoying and I thought if it were me, I’d want to know about it. Most people wouldn’t go through the trouble to fix the URL and would just stop reading their feeds. It had been going on for two weeks. In fact, no one had pointed it out to them, which they wrote back to me with extreme gratitude. I also received updates on how they were fixing the problem and several more thank yous from various people in the organization. All that thanking was a bit much but it did make me feel like I did the right thing. And of course, the feed is now fixed.

  • Hi, Mike Consol and Anne. I appreciate your rich, instructive examples. Thanks for taking the time to share them.

    I love this topic, so I am especially grateful for e everyone’s views.

Comments are closed.