Zen and the Art of Constructive Criticism

CRITIQUE 2/2 by Bruno Boutot / CC-BY-NC-SA

“CRITIQUE 2/2” photo by Flickr user Bruno Boutot (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)



If there were a single piece of advice I have for new professionals entering the field of librarianship, it would be to develop the skill of giving and receiving criticism. This isn’t something I’ve been able to find in an LIS course catalog, slate of webinar programming, or conference booklet (although it looks like there’s an awesome presentation later this week at LOEX!). While we’re not formally educated in the art of critique, library professionals are required to provide and accept feedback in a variety of different situations. For example, we might engage in giving and receiving criticism to and from colleagues, supervisors, and mentees and in other situations (for tenure, during instructional observations, when providing job references, during peer review, annual evaluations, etc.).

Even when handled constructively, feedback can be a heavy burden, particularly for new professionals entering the field. Our hesitation to educate and engage in positive feedback models is symptomatic of a black and white view of the world. In librarianship, this view manifests itself through dualities like cataloging or public services; user-focused or stuck in the past; innovative or resistant to change; colleagues who love us or hate us. Communication is seen as either good or bad, delineation often made within seconds based on gut reaction and the context surrounding a particular situation or person involved. But every situation has its shades of gray. Although we are not our ideas and we are not our words, we often place a sense of ownership and identity in communication. The difficult part comes when we need to separate ourselves from what we say and what we hear.

My own struggle with criticism is a process of continual learning based on research and self-reflection. This Lead Pipe article will outline tips for providing constructive criticism, methods of accepting feedback when it is given, and how to productively handle destructive criticism.

Why Criticism Is Threatening

It is important to mention that dealing with criticism is not simply an exercise of mental control. Who among us has not experienced the racing heartbeat, tense muscles, and rise in blood pressure the moment a grad school paper is delivered with a grade or a peer-reviewed article is sent back with edits? When our actions are called into question, we are forced to counteract our own physiology. In her article on the psychology of giving and taking in critical feedback, Wright refers to this as a “negativity bias,” based on the fact that different nervous system circuits handle negative information/events than handle positive information/events. Baumeister and his colleagues from Case Western Reserve University and Free University of Amsterdam unpack this idea further in their extensive 2001 study of why bad is stronger than good across a broad range of psychological phenomena: “Even after the behavioral response to a fear-inducing conditioned stimulus has been extinguished, the brain retains a changed pattern of neuronal connections between cells…” (Baumeister 336). Thus, these negative systems are more sensitive and as a result, we react quickly and viscerally to bad news.

Our reactions are based on deeply seeded “fight or flight” survival instincts. When we are critiqued we risk exclusion and with a pack mentality, this would equal death. “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good,” says Baumeister (325).

Right now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the modern world. While we no longer travel in herds, our culture is predominantly a social one. There is pressure (from the media, our upbringing, the government, our peers) to conform and exist within the boundaries of what is acceptable. Most of us function within this system to earn the money we need to purchase the necessities of life. It’s not exactly hunting, but the grocery store certainly isn’t free. “What hurts most in negative feedback, then, isn’t the overt content of the message so much as the threat of exclusion, abandonment, and ostracism that accompanies it,” says Wright (59). In the workplace, criticism threatens our ability to survive. It’s no wonder our palms get sweaty walking into our annual evaluation meetings.

At a basic level, criticism is judgment and no one likes to feel judged. In a profession full of individuals who care so deeply about their work, receiving feedback can often feel like a personal blow. Our workplaces are emotionally charged, particularly during times of great change.

Giving Constructive Criticism

Before discussing how to productively receive criticism, it’s imperative to focus on how we communicate when we give it. Always providing constructive criticism is a step in the right direction towards strengthening emotional intelligence.

Begin by questioning your motives for providing feedback to another individual:

The wrong reasons to give feedback:

  • Defend/excuse your own behavior
  • To demoralize/condemn
  • You’re in a bad mood
  • To appease a third party
  • To make yourself seem superior/powerful

The right reasons to give feedback:

  • Commitment/concern for another
  • Sense of responsibility
  • To guide/mentor
  • To support/enhance

Source: Booher

Although considering your motives may seem like a basic first step, a reflective practice of communication is the most effective. The individual you are providing feedback to will only be able to guess at your intentions based on what you communicate through words and body language. Being upfront about your intentions also includes being open about the severity of the criticism. What are the consequences for the recipient of this criticism? Are comments being offered up as food for thought? Did he commit career-suicide and is being fired? Will the conversation end with a formal complaint for her personnel file? It is critical to communicate the severity of the feedback at the beginning of the conversation so that the individual can stop worrying and focus on the issue at hand rather than the consequences.

Another strategy for giving constructive criticism is to lead the conversation with questions and observations. This helps the individual feel a sense of ownership in the conversation as opposed to being scolded. For example: “Did you know that the pitch of your voice changes during class? I could really tell when you believed in what you were saying and when you didn’t.” Bringing attention to something through observation or asking a question may be enough push for the individual to make a change.

Constructive criticism should be concrete and actionable, providing the recipient with alternatives for correction. There is a fine line between being constructive and couching criticism in positive affirmations. For example, consider the difference between “The unicorn on that poster looks a little sad. Have you thought about raising his eyebrows or giving him a smile to help convey a happier expression?” and “Wow, that unicorn is AMAZING, it’s so artistic and well-proportioned, and it’s super adorable, but… it has really sad eyes.” Without clear communication, we may fail to deliver critiques effectively. This can make the situation more stressful as the individual struggles to decipher mixed messages.

Receiving Constructive Criticism

“Quality constructive criticism implicitly recognizes worth in receivers’ work…” (Petress)

Even when given constructively, for the right reasons, and with grace, receiving criticism can feel uncomfortable. However, a big part of learning is recognizing, analyzing, and fixing our mistakes. In a profession focused on lifelong learning, the skill of accepting feedback should be an area of continual improvement.

Criticism is best received when it is invited, so perhaps we should welcome it more frequently within libraries. Dianna Booher (CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications training firm) recommends starting long-term professional relationships with a frank discussion, asking “Do you intend to make any mistakes over the course of the next three years?” Yes, this is a hilariously absurd line of questioning— of course mistakes will be made! However, a line of conversation in this vein opens the door to a conversation about how the individuals would like to handle criticism and feedback. Would you like to receive feedback in-person? How often? Over email? At the end or beginning of the day? Using humor to lighten the tone of this important dialogue will decrease anxiety and help both parties feel more relaxed moving forward. It is a strategy that would be ideal for new librarians, interns, or graduate assistants, in order to start developing their emotional intelligence and ability to give and receive criticism.

In order to receive more concrete and actionable criticism, ask for feedback on a specific aspect of your work rather than general thoughts. For example, instead of asking a colleague “How do you think my instruction session went?” ask “Did using Poll Everywhere seem to increase the amount of student interaction/interest in the session?” or “How do you think the peer-to-peer learning aspect of having students demo EBSCO Discovery Service at the front of the class went?” Asking for feedback on a particular aspect lets you relax and focus on the areas you’re interested in improving, rather than being self-conscious about aspects you know you can improve on your own. Considering the medium through which you communicate your request for feedback (and the feedback itself) is also important. It is incredibly difficult to provide constructive criticism through e-mail, as tone is hard to discern and body language is non-existent. Communicating face to face is best, even if it’s just a quick 15-minute conversation in a colleague’s office.

The late Dr. Ken Petress, professor emeritus of communication at the University of Maine, recommends that recipients resist being dogmatic or rigid about their work, whatever it may be. We sometimes hear what we want to hear, not what is being communicated. This is understandable when we have poured a lot of time and energy into projects that we are passionate about. However, the ability to remain flexible and adapt to critical feedback are skills that will help move librarianship forward.

Destructive Criticism

One of my Lead Pipe colleagues, Brett Bonfield, shared the following story with me, told by Paul Graham about Sam Altman. It has become “…something of a legend,” among start up founders and hackers and receiving a similar reaction that Ranganathan’s “Every book its reader” gets among librarians (Bonfield):

“Someone who’s not yet an adult will tend to respond to a challenge from an adult in a way that acknowledges their dominance. If an adult says ‘that’s a stupid idea,’ a kid will either crawl away with his tail between his legs, or rebel. But rebelling presumes inferiority as much as submission. The adult response to ‘that’s a stupid idea,’ is simply to look the other person in the eye and say ‘Really? Why do you think so?'”

Interpreting criticism can be tricky, as it is difficult to separate criticism of one’s work from criticism of the person. Try to make a good-faith assumption that the criticism is positively motivated. If the conversation still feels destructive, engage in perception checking to determine if you are decoding the speaker’s message correctly. This provides a non-threatening opportunity for the critic to clarify their feedback before professional relationships are damaged.

Criticism hinges on the perception of authority, which can often impact its reception. In the workplace, unsolicited advice can trigger resentment because the recipient may feel like the critic is presuming authority over him or her. “Such feedback tends to come across as a power play— something that’s easier to tolerate in a manager who’s a recognized authority than a peer who isn’t,” says Wright (61). So, what can you do when you doubt the authority of the person giving you feedback, either because the person is not in a supervisory role or you doubt that they are offering something constructive and for the right reasons?

Being equipped with language to respond to destructive criticism can help you deal with it in a healthy manner. The following phrases leave the door open for discussion— everyone involved gets to save face. It can be stressful to feel obligated to solve a problem at a particular moment in time. Adopting these responses can demonstrate that you are open to new ideas but don’t force you to commit on the spot, a particularly useful technique if you suspect that the criticism is being delivered for the wrong reasons. Feel free to add your own responses to the list in the comments area below the article.

  • You know, you might be right
  • That’s a good idea.
  • What would that look like?
  • I hadn’t thought about that.
  • Let me think about that.
  • How could we make that work?

Professionals should keep in mind that leaders are always targets for criticism. “To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction,” says technologist Clay Shirky. Destructive criticism, typically motivated by negativity, says more about the critic than the recipient. In these cases, it may be helpful to investigate resources on how to care less.


Giving and accepting criticism requires great emotional strength, but that is no excuse to avoid conflict. Good decisions emerge from conflict and consensus decision-making. However, it is important to communicate constructively in order to move our profession forward and build meaningful relationships. Libraries and other institutions must develop a culture where dissent is okay, even valued.

Graduate programs in librarianship should integrate teaching feedback models into the curriculum. In their pilot study, educators Patricia L. Harms and Deborah Britt Roebuck found that business students appreciated opportunities to role-play giving and receiving feedback to become more comfortable with the process of delivering constructive criticism (426). After learning the BET/BEAR model in the classroom, students reported adopting this approach successfully in real world situations.

Additionally, professional development opportunities abound in this area of interpersonal communication. Libraries continue to seek out ways to develop leadership potential through regional and national programs like the ALA Emerging Leaders. As we consider how managers are being created, the ability to give and receive constructive criticism should be high on the list of desired traits. Hands-on workshops with role-playing and “judgment-free” practice zones could be organized for conference programming.

As a new professional, this has been one of my largest areas of growth over the past four years. And, as advocates of lifelong learning and an informed citizenry, it is important for librarians to act as role models to the people we serve. On a final note, if your only comment to this Lead Pipe article is “This sucks,” I refer you up to the criticism motives chart in section two. Learn it. Live it. We can all do this better.

Many thanks to James DelRosso for his constructive criticism on this piece. Thanks also to Sheila Kasperek, Lindsey Girard, and Lead Pipers Hilary Davis, Brett Bonfield, Ellie Collier, Leigh Anne Vrabel and Emily Ford for edits, comments, and thought provoking questions. Props to #alatt for the brainstorming!

References and Further Readings

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. “Bad is stronger than good.” Review Of General Psychology, 5.4 (2001): 323-370.

Bonfield, Brett. “Erin’s article topic – criticism (for May 2).” Message to Erin Dorney. 15 Apr. 2012. E-mail.

Booher, Dianna. “Communicate With Confidence And Give Constructive Criticism Without Crippling Others.” Women In Business 51.5 (1999): 44.

Burkhardt, Andy. “Constant Critic or Creative Colleague?” Information Tyrannosaur, March 13, 2012. http://andyburkhardt.com/2012/03/13/constant-critic-or-creative-colleague/

Farkas, Meredith. “Charitable reading.” Information Wants to be Free, January 11, 2007. http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2007/01/11/charitable-reading/

Ford, Emily. “Consensus Decision-Making and its Possibilities in Libraries.“ In the Library with the Lead Pipe, January 25, 2012. https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2012/consensus/

Goldsmith, Barton. “Ten Tips For Delivering (Constructive) Criticism.” Successful Meetings 54.9 (2005): 26-27.

Graham, Paul. “How to Disagree.” PaulGraham.com, March 2008. http://www.paulgraham.com/disagree.html

Graham, Paul. “Why to Not Not Start a Startup.” PaulGraham.com, March 2007.  http://paulgraham.com/notnot.html

Harms, Patricia L., and Deborah Britt Roebuck. “Teaching The Art And Craft Of Giving And Receiving Feedback.” Business Communication Quarterly 73.4 (2010): 413-431.

Manley, Will. “WILL UNWOUND #731: “Tough Love”.” Will Unwound, April 12, 2012. http://willmanley.com/2012/04/12/will-unwound-731-tough-love/

Perception Checking. National Conflict Resolution Education in Teacher Education (CRETE) Collaborative Project, n.d. http://www.creducation.org/resources/perception_checking/how_well_do_you_understand.html

Petress, Dr. Ken. “Constructive Criticism: A Tool For Improvement.” College Student Journal 34.3 (2000): 475.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. New York, Morrow, 1974.

Shirky, Clay. “A Rant About Women” ClayShirky.com, January 15, 2010. http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/01/a-rant-about-women/

Sutton, Robert. “The Virtues of Emotional Detachment” Business News on The Huffington Post, June 20, 2007. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-sutton/the-virtues-of-emotional-_b_53008.html

Wright, Karen. “A CHIC CRITIQUE.. (Cover Story).” Psychology Today 44.2 (2011): 54-63.

28 Responses

  1. Criticism! One of my favorite topics. I’m so glad to see this blog address this topic. Sometimes, I think our profession is so focused on the nuts and bolts of librarianship, we forget to address the skills that go beyond the library walls.

    I also applaud you for recognizing the value of tackling this as one of your areas of growth. Mastering these skills will help you far beyond the actual moment that criticism is delivered or received.

    When I’m offering advice to friends about this or other workplace issues, it always seems to come back to this: learn how to not take things personally, even when it is intended to be personal.

    And as you said, the fight or flight response is one we can’t control in the moment, as its happening (possibly); but, we can undertake practices such as meditation that would help us lessen the response. There are also ways to practice mind control that eventually rewire your trigger. They’ve done studies on monks measuring their responses to various stimuli and they actually PHYSICALLY respond compassionately to things that would make most people angry.
    I’m sure there are numerous techniques for mastering one’s mind. I tend to lean towards mindfulness based techniques because they have also helped me cultivate compassion, which has helped me in more ways than I can count. All of this is a lifelong journey: developing the skills that will help you navigate work and life. The rewards are immeasurable. Imagine a workplace where everyone was adept at delivering and receiving criticism with grace. People would be less afraid to share ideas. Collaboration would spark innovation and people would have the freedom to fail. Wow. That would be awesome.

    1. yes, meditation and attitude adjustment are key ideas when it comes to being able to take and give constructive criticism! For me personally I find that having a meditative yoga practice and also setting daily intentions works well. Thanks for pointing that out, Ann.

    2. Hi Ann – Thanks for your kind comments on the article. I agree 100% about not taking things personally. It’s difficult to fight that feeling sometimes, but it’s crucial to being able to accept feedback and improve your work. Love the comment about rewiring your trigger as well – I think the first step there is identifying what our triggers are. Then we can move forward with dealing in a more productive manner. And, your last few sentences? THAT is exactly the library environment I want to work in :) I think it’s possible to get there. Thanks for reading!

  2. I love this piece so much.

    My one major quibble is with the quote from Dianna Booher (“Do you intend to make any mistakes over the course of the next three years?”). I completely agree with benefits of having a frank discussion about how to handle feedback and have done this many times with new colleagues. But the actual sentence she offers strikes me as incredibly confrontational and I think it is unlikely to be taken as humor and answered with ‘of course I will.’ Especially depending on any power dynamics between the parties. It feels like a trick question and it seems like something that will immediately shut down communication.

    I think a better opener would be something more along the lines of, “I really appreciate feedback, it helps me learn and grow, here’s how I like to receive it, what works best for you?”

    1. Ellie – I agree, the context of the situation (and history of people involved, and their professional relationship to one another) might call for some creative license on the wording of starting a conversation in that vein. I think the phrase you suggested is great because it opens the door for a give and take – kind of like the idea that a mentoring relationship goes two ways. Also, I was just thinking… maybe power dynamics in the workplace should be a future Lead Pipe article! I think there are a lot of places we could go with that one… :)

  3. At our statewide conference our Keynote speaker was Robert Killen, who talks about facilitating dialogue. (sneak peek here)

    A mantra: “you are not your ideas.” I think one of the problem is that we, as people, take things way too personally, and this inhibits us from thinking creatively to come up with solutions when what we’re doing is problematic.

    I would also like to add, that I think the means by which we ask for feedback is SO IMPORTANT. I like that you are showing us ways to ask more meaningful questions (ie, concrete questions vs. general) but also asking for feedback informally, walking up to your colleague’s office, makes it much more important than scheduling a meeting or asking for feedback via e-mail.

    Thanks for tackling this, Erin!

  4. I also wanted to emphasize the usefulness of asking for very specific feedback. I was preparing an hour long presentation on the future of libraries for a job interview. I asked some colleagues if they would let me do a practice run in front of them. They not only said yes, but did some extra recruiting of audience members for me which ended up giving me a much broader perspective in my feedback and ended up being helpful for the library school student who got to see an academic hiring presentation.

    Before I started I let them know that I hadn’t practiced a ton yet, so I didn’t need feedback on eye contact or pauses or ums and ahs. What I really wanted to know was: (1) Did the order of my ideas work or should anything be reordered? (2) Did my activity work? (3) Did I fulfill what was asked of me? (I shared the exact language of the presentation request.)

    They were so amazingly helpful. They probably would have been anyway because they are awesome people, but knowing what areas I wanted to focus on made sure I got the critique I really needed.

    1. I think this is a really great point to emphasize, not only for the purpose of utility, but also in terms of helping us feel better about receiving criticism on our work. Asking for feedback on something specific gives you more control over the situation. You’ve directed your audience’s attention to where you want it to go, and you’ve taken out some of the uncertainty that makes receiving feedback so scary. Going into a feedback situation blind with no idea as to what the other person is going to say is one of the scarier parts for me. Asking for specific commentary makes me feel like I have greater agency over the situation, which alleviates a lot of my anxiety from the get-go. Great article, Erin!

      1. Ellie that is such a great example, and one I plan on putting into practice immediately. I think it’s also helpful in that you are openly “admitting” that there are other aspects that might not be perfect yet, but that you can get a handle on on your own. We’re not perfect, and I think recognizing that (and communicating it) can go a long way in relaxing the doors to allow constructive criticism to flow between individuals.

        Lindsey – Yes! That is one of the scariest aspects for me as well. It’s easy to get worked up over/anxious about what the person might say if you have no idea what angle they’ll be coming from. Thanks for all of your help with the article, too!

  5. Ann

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this article. Points of it resonated with me and what I’ve experienced in my professional life.

    Advice in any soft skill is always “easier said than done.” Soft skills are so, well, squishy. I find it very valuable, though, to hear that others have felt or experienced the same things. Reading suggestions for how they have come to deal with it helps me view my own situation with fresh eyes that takes that “pack exclusion” fear away by giving me a broader pack with which to identify.

    So, I guess I just wanted to say thank you for writing this piece and letting me know I’m not a lone wolf.

    1. Ann – Thanks so much for your comment. Knowing that the article resonates with others makes me feel better as well. We’re certainly not the only ones (or profession) out there struggling with this and trying to educate and improve ourselves.

  6. Erin, I remember this discussion on #alatt and the article has come out beautifully! I’ve read it twice now; it’s so thoughtful. At our library, we’re soliciting new bloggers to contribute to the blog. We’ve had conversations about the role of the editorial team–that team provides constructive criticism so that we all have a product of which we can be proud. I sent your article to our two associate directors who are soliciting new bloggers and they said it’s required reading for anyone joining the blog team. Thanks so much for taking on this topic.

    1. Hi Ellen – Thanks so much! I’m glad we could help. I just joined the Lead Pipe team about 5 months ago, and I have to say that I am loving the team approach. The constructive feedback we give and receive on all of the articles published here make them much stronger… I can’t even tell you how much my original article changed after integrating feedback during the review process. Which makes me think… it might be an intriguing post to share an article in multiple stages – pre and post (or even during) peer review to show the level of feedback that is given to writers. I wish you the best of luck with your Sheridan Libraries blog! And if you have any questions we might be able to help with re: the editorial experience/process here at Lead Pipe, just shoot us an email :)

  7. Laura Zeigen

    This is a great article! It is one with advice and wisdom I wish I had received at least 15 years ago! This dynamic (of giving and receiving constructive criticism) is definitely a learned skill and something that is challenging for most of us to do, but, once learned something that would greatly improve our effectiveness at work.

  8. Thanks Laura! I agree. Imagine if we fully-integrated this into LIS education. It could really change the trajectory of the field if we could all learn take things less personally and work together to collaborate in the truest sense. Thanks for reading the Lead Pipe!

  9. Wonderful article. One of the most helpful things for me was joining a writing group that critiques each others work.

    My group taught me how to separate myself from whatever is being criticized, and not to take it personally. I found that my reactions to the written constructive criticisms improved with time. This, in turn, had a marvelous effect on my ability to *happily* and constructively receive face-to-face criticisms.

    1. Hi Vanessa – Thanks! Building a community where critique is expected and welcomed is a great idea in terms of becoming more comfortable giving and receiving feedback. The expectations are really clear for everyone in that case, so you can focus more on making improvements to your writing and less on the negative feelings that may come along with it. Thanks for the comment!

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  11. Lorne Doone

    Just read “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer … Chapter 6 – about plussing during criticism… “Whenever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a plus, a new idea that builds on the flaws in a productive manner…. When plussing works, it’s incredibly effective at generating creative breakthroughs”

    1. Lorne – Thanks for the comment. I love the idea of plussing – sounds like it could be really helpful during the brainstorming/idea generation process.

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  13. Amy

    I agree that formal instruction in constructive criticism would be very useful to library professionals. Being able to take anything other than positive feedback on board doesn’t come naturally to me, nor I suppose, to many people. Nobody wants to hear bad things about themselves!

    I think that setting up regular one on one meetings between staff and managers is a good way to ensure constructive criticism is expected and seen as a normal part of the work environment… as opposed to sitting down with the boss only when there is a problem. In my experience, approaching my managers and proactively asking for feedback has got easier with practice and is preferable to sitting around waiting for it and expecting the worst.

    1. Amy – I completely agree about regular meetings between staff and managers. Consistency is important because then you come to expect feedback. Individuals can start getting used to that they might not be 100% right all the time when constructive criticism is shared more often. Thanks for the comment!

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  16. Thanks–this is a very interesting article. I’d just like to add that I’ve been teaching a graduate Information Literacy course in the UCLA iSchool as an Adjunct Lecturer about every other year since 1990. (My colleague, Joan Kaplowitz and I proposed this course in 1989.) Each time I teach it, I ask MLIS and Ph.D. students to observe others teaching and to focus on 2 questions: “What did you like?” and “How would you do it differently?” Students use these questions in assignments that include observing a librarian teach a F2F session, reviewing an online library instruction site, and commenting on in-class student teaching/learning, both group and individual. So this is an example of one method of critiquing that is taught in an iSchool, that is, when this course is offered. Unfortunately, it’s an elective and in some years, when budgets are tight, it isn’t offered at all.

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