March 15, 2024 •

7 min reading

Constructive criticism or toxic comments? How to make the difference?

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Criticism is never easy to take, but at some point in your professional life, you will receive it and may also have to give it. Although it might not feel like it at the time, receiving criticism can be a positive and enriching experience. It can help you identify gaps in your knowledge and enable you to see certain situations in a different way. Constructive criticism, by its nature, aims to support growth and improvement, making it an invaluable tool for personal and professional development.

The benefits of the criticism you give or receive depend on several factors, such as the intent of the feedback and how it’s delivered. It’s not always immediately obvious whether criticism is constructive or toxic because our initial reaction to it is often the same. With that in mind, we’ll cover some of the basics and provide a few pointers to help you differentiate between the two.


What is constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism, also known as constructive feedback, is a way of giving negative feedback that’s intended to be beneficial for the recipient while keeping things harmonious in the workplace. It doesn’t just point out a fault; it also identifies the things you did well and suggests areas that you can improve to help you learn from your mistakes. It may also offer suggestions and provide possible solutions.

Receiving constructive criticism can dent your confidence and sense of self-worth. However, upon reflection, most people can understand why they received the feedback, appreciate that it was delivered tactfully, and use it to grow.

Example of constructive criticism

“Your presentation during the team meeting was well-prepared and you articulated your points clearly. However, I noticed that you spoke quite quickly, which made it a bit challenging for some team members to follow. Slowing down and allowing for pauses will help everyone fully grasp the information you're sharing. Overall, great job, and with a few adjustments, I believe your presentations will become even more effective.”

What is toxic criticism?

Toxic or destructive criticism is negative feedback delivered with the intention of harming, undermining, or damaging one's reputation. Destructive criticism can also come from someone who may not mean to cause you harm but doesn’t know how to deliver negative feedback effectively, or their criticism of you is unwarranted or unfair.

Toxic criticism can be hugely damaging for an individual. It can irreparably harm your confidence and morale, making you less productive, more absent, and more prone to mistakes. It usually takes place in psychologically unsafe workplaces where unprofessional and inappropriate behavior is commonplace and there’s an unhealthy corporate culture.

Example of toxic comment

“That presentation was a mess. You always talk too fast. Nobody understood anything you said. I don't know why we even bother giving you tasks. You're so incompetent and unreliable. Everyone on the team is tired of cleaning up after your mistakes. You're a liability and a burden to work with.”

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Constructive or toxic criticism: How do you tell the difference?

Constructive and destructive criticism are both verbal forms of feedback. Our ability to determine one from the other is based on how we perceive that feedback, which is entirely subjective. The process becomes more difficult when we put up emotional walls and recognize elements of truth in the feedback that gives us pause for thought.

These objective tips can help you determine whether criticism is constructive or destructive:

Consider the source

The first step is to think about where the criticism has come from. If it’s a supportive supervisor or colleague who has always been friendly and helpful, you can usually assume it’s well-intentioned, even if their delivery is clumsy.

On the other hand, if the criticism does not come from someone you trust or if it seems to lack integrity or goodwill, there’s a good chance it’s going to be destructive. You should still take the time to process the criticism and consider whether there are any helpful points, but you shouldn’t dwell on it or let it affect you negatively.

Think about the delivery

The way someone delivers criticism can also be very revealing. Those who offer constructive criticism will do so in a friendly and empathetic way. They will want to minimize any stress or embarrassment you feel by simply pointing out a problem and offering solutions you may not have considered.

If the person providing the criticism seems angry, jealous, or insecure, is worried about an unrelated issue or subject, or appears to be enjoying giving you the feedback, it’s more likely that you can discount it.

Scrutinize the content

What someone says is just as important as who they are and how they deliver it. Constructive criticism will typically identify what you did well but also include suggestions for elements you can improve. The overall aim will be to help you find a better solution.

Toxic criticism, on the other hand, is more likely to focus on what you did wrong. The individual giving the feedback may point out your errors repeatedly or make remarks that could be derogatory, insulting, or even mocking.

How should you receive constructive criticism?

Criticism is difficult to hear and even harder to accept. To do that, you need a good level of self-awareness, to be emotionally intelligent, and to have some idea of your flaws. Here are some suggestions for managing your own reaction to feedback.

Don’t get defensive

When some people get criticized, they look for the quickest route to reject feedback. That’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a highly defensive stance, rejecting the feedback as unfounded or unimportant.

If you feel the urge to immediately reject feedback, hold yourself back for a moment and keep your thoughts calm. Just say “Thank you for the feedback, I’ll take it into consideration.” This way, even if you don’t agree, you can take time to think about it and look more professional.

Don’t take it personally

Some people are highly sensitive to criticism, and they may experience anxiety, depression, or shame. If criticism triggers negative emotions in you, try to accept the criticism gracefully, and then leave the discussion. Take some time out to breathe, have a warm drink, discuss it with a trusted friend or colleague, and identify where the negative emotions are coming from.

Being able to listen to criticism without responding negatively or getting angry can be particularly challenging if you don’t fully trust the source. However, even flawed sources can provide honest and constructive feedback.

No matter what

Most importantly, and regardless of the source or type of criticism you receive, you should listen intently to the criticism and make sure you properly understand everything the other person is saying. When they have finished, thank them for the feedback as that shows you recognize that they are trying to help with your development. You should then take some time to reflect on the feedback, ask questions if you need more clarity, and share your perspective. If it’s a more serious issue and you want to discuss things in more detail, you could ask for a meeting, preferably involving a neutral third party, before agreeing on the next steps.


How can you give constructive criticism?

There will be times, whether as an experienced colleague, a supervisor, or a business leader, when you need to offer some constructive criticism. It can be just as difficult to give negative feedback as it can to hear it, and it’s a skill you must practice to perfect. Here are a few tips you can follow:

  • Be mindful of your emotional state - Don’t give feedback if you’re angry or annoyed by your colleague’s actions or upset about something completely unrelated. Always give yourself time to calm down first.
  • Consider your goal - Think about why you want to share the criticism and make sure the reason is positive. Then think about how you can give criticism that will enhance the recipient’s development.
  • Think about timing - It’s usually best to give feedback when the events are still fresh in everyone’s minds. However, your criticism will be more constructive if you allow the dust to settle first.
  • Focus on behaviors - You should focus on the behaviors of the individual and avoid criticizing their personality or motivations.
  • Communicate clearly - Break your criticism down into points and provide examples of each behavior for clarity.
  • Offer solutions - Provide practical steps they can take to improve as part of your feedback.
  • Keep it supportive and friendly - Everyone makes mistakes, so frame the conversation in a positive and supportive light and keep the tone constructive.
  • Invite questions - Even with the best will in the world, tensions can be high, and comments can be misunderstood, so make it clear that you are happy to answer any questions.


Two easy tips for giving great feedback

As a manager, the T.H.I.N.K. and S.M.A.R.T. acronyms can be helpful tools.

THINK will help you stay focused and benevolent during your conversation.
Remind yourself to keep your feedback True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind.

SMART is designed for setting goals, but it will also help you to weed out any opinions and unnecessary elements. Stick to the facts and solutions that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely.

Destructive criticism is never the solution

One of the biggest challenges when giving or receiving criticism is how easily it can be perceived in a way that wasn’t intended. Even the same content can be perceived differently depending on the delivery. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful and take time to prepare and digest the message. We hope the steps outlined in this post will help you build a more supportive culture and become a stronger and more collaborative team