Destructive Criticism 101: Why Tearing Things Down Never Builds Employees Up

constructive and destructive criticism

The way managers give feedback to their team members can make or break how successful a department will be. When criticism is constructive, people receive feedback in a way that they can build upon. They are able to understand what worked and what could use improvements to make positive changes and perform stronger in the future.

96% of employees say getting regular feedback is a good thing, and employees who receive constructive criticism are 69% more likely to improve at their work. However, not all feedback is effective feedback.

Destructive criticism is feedback that does not benefit the recipient. A growing conversation in the work world is how to implement an autonomous workplace where employees feel comfortable, aligned, and have the freedom to work in a way that best suits their styles and job role. This falls entirely on communication—how managers talk and work with their team members. If the communication is hostile, so will be the work environment. If criticism is supportive, this will also be reflected in the inner dynamics of how people work together.

Constructive vs Destructive Criticism

effects of constructive criticism and destructive criticism

You know the saying, “two minds are better than one”? Criticism is the best way to grow professionally and personally because we get different perspectives and expertise to improve on a project in the present, or a situation in the future.

The way criticism is delivered, though, will be the defining factor of how helpful it will be. Constructive criticism aims to build the recipient up. The purpose is to give the other person a balanced view about what they did well and how they can improve the next time. Destructive criticism, on the other hand, knocks people down. There’s no lesson, just an overbearing sense of defeat.

This is why it’s important to understand criticism that is positive and helpful versus negative criticism that’s destructive and toxic. Destructive criticism can have rippling effects across the workplace because it demoralizes people, prohibits professional growth, and creates a tense environment.

How do we know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism, so we can react accordingly? Here are the three main factors to help you determine if you’re a victim of destructive criticism:

Intent

What is the intent behind the criticism? Understanding the purpose will help you understand if it’s destructive or productive in nature.

When criticism is destructive, it’s usually delivered in the form of a personal attack, negative remark, or a passive comment. It’s toxic, it’s workplace bullying, and it negatively affects employee performance and morale. Telling someone they’re terrible at what they do, for example, doesn’t give them direction. It only serves to hurt the person’s self esteem and set a volatile atmosphere, which not only leads to high employee turnover and negative thought patterns, but also impacts the general reputation your organization has among professionals and consumers.

Conversely, constructive criticism is not a personal attack, but a thoughtful review about how a team member performed with direct feedback about what they should do differently next time. It’s about building an employee experience around transparency, respect, and professional growth.

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Focus

Who or what is the focus of this exchange? Knowing this can help you recognize if the criticism is constructive or destructive.

Here’s an example. You’re filling out a report and accidentally pull the wrong numbers. Your manager catches this and says, “You did this all wrong, you’re not cut out for this.”

Notice the use of “you”? The focus is not on the report nor where to find the right information. The focus is on you, the feedback recipient, and it’s a personal attack.

The focus for even unintentional destructive criticism will always be on the person who made the mistake. This is why it’s easy to take destructive feedback personally—it’s usually packaged as a personal attack. From the recipient’s perspective, it crushes their self esteem and doesn’t help the person improve. It only creates a toxic environment.

Constructive criticism focuses on the behavior or the work, not the person themselves. It recognizes a mistake and provides the recipient with the tools and understanding needed to avoid it in the future. It improves productivity because growth, development, and understanding is the purpose of the feedback.

Delivery

Sometimes, it’s not so much what someone said but how they said it. When someone’s giving criticism, constructive or destructive, the delivery will leave the lasting impression on the person receiving the feedback. When it comes to destructive criticism, the delivery is toxic and unsettling. Sometimes it’s an emotional outburst, like snapping at team members. Other times it’s sprawling novels on Slack breaking down every little thing that a person has ever done wrong. Sometimes it’s cold passivity.

None of this behavior is acceptable and the only aims to hurt people. Constructive feedback, on the other hand, is a dialogue. The recipient feels comfortable asking questions to ultimately come to a place of understanding. It’s an opportunity to have a wider conversation and hit the goals at hand.

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Examples of destructive criticism

destructive criticism and toxic behavior in the workplace

Destructive criticism can take many forms, different kinds of tone of voice, and sometimes, you might not even realize you are giving or receiving behavior that’s damaging. Here are some examples:

  • Personal attacks: “You’re so lazy and incompetent. You’ll never get anything right.” This can severely damage self-esteem and lead to feelings of worthlessness and demotivation.
  • Vague and non-constructive: “This work is terrible. I don’t even know where to start.” Without specific guidance, the recipient feels lost and unable to improve. This lack of communication leads to frustration and confusion.
  • Generalizing negative behavior: “You always mess things up. Can’t you do anything properly?” This creates a sense of inevitability and helplessness, making the recipient believe they cannot change or improve.
  • Mocking or sarcasm: “Wow, did you even try to do a good job? This is a joke.” Feedback like this humiliates the recipient. It causes embarrassment and can lead to resentment or a decrease in effort.
  • Comparisons with others: “Why can’t you be more like [Person A]? [Person A] always does things perfectly.” This can create jealousy and resentment, lower morale, and damage the recipient’s sense of individuality and self-worth.
  • Undermining confidence: “If I were you, I’d be embarrassed to show this to anyone.” Constant criticism of this nature erodes confidence, making the recipient afraid to take risks or try new things.
  • Shutting down effort: “Just stop trying if this is the best you can do.” This kind of negative feedback discourages perseverance and can lead to a complete halt in trying to improve.
  • Public humiliation: “This is a perfect example of how not to do something. Look, everyone!” This can cause acute embarrassment and anxiety, potentially leading to withdrawal from group settings and activities.
  • Focus on faults, ignoring strengths: “You got one thing right, but look at all these mistakes.” Overemphasis on negatives can make the recipient feel that their efforts are not valued, resulting in discouragement and a lack of motivation.
  • Dismissive statements: “I can’t believe you thought this was good. What a waste of time.” Such feedback makes the recipient feel unappreciated and undervalued, which often results in disengagement and reduced effort.

What to do when you witness destructive criticism

how to recognize and respond to destructive criticism

Whether it’s directed at you or happening around you, it’s important to respond to destructive criticism in a way that protects your mental wellbeing and leads to positive change. Whether it’s a situation in your personal life or in the workplace, here’s the best course of action:

Protect yourself

First, you need to protect yourself. Destructive criticism can be deeply offensive and trigger negative emotions and self-destructive behavior. If you need to take a moment before taking action, then do so.

You might also need to decide whether or not you want to call out the behavior at all. There is a reason why so many of us choose to leave bad leadership rather than confront their behavior. There is strength in removing yourself from a bad situation and sometimes, this is the best option to protect your mental health.

Understand the context

Destructive criticism is unacceptable, but especially if it’s a rare situation, we must look at the context surrounding it. Was it a careless comment in passing, or was it clearly mean and thought-out? Is the individual who delivered the criticism having any known personal issues that could be affecting their judgment?

Assess the criticism

Assess what was actually said in the critique. Is it relevant, and is there any valuable information buried underneath the negativity? Even constructive criticism can be a little hard to receive. If the comments are poorly worded, the team member delivering it might need some feedback themselves. Genuinely negative comments need to be assessed to determine if there is an underlying bias, internal politics, or some other factor at work.

Call out the behavior

It takes a lot of bravery to call out destructive criticism, but if there’s a force that is upsetting team dynamics, it needs to be addressed one way or the other. This might involve you going to a superior above the toxic person’s role. Other times, you might be able to have a direct conversation with the individual. Regardless of which direction you take, drawing your boundaries and calling out the toxic behavior puts the other person in their place.

How to avoid giving destructive criticism

specific examples of how to avoid destructive criticism

The whole team has a responsibility to communicate effectively and appropriately in the workplace—it’s not just on the people receiving feedback. Leaders, managers, and higher ups set the tone for how people treat each other and the company culture they are a part of. Here’s a couple tips to make sure you’re sharing your thoughts in a helpful and constructive way:

Let the ego go

The first thing you need to do is let go of the ego. Offering your perspective is important, but you don’t want to insist it’s your way or the highway. What you’re essentially doing is shutting down the other person’s opinions, which can quickly escalate and turn toxic. Find the balance of sharing your thoughts while also incorporating others. Think about what will work best from the perspective of other team members, not just yours.

Focus on the actions, not the person

We said it many times, but we’ll say it again. Feedback must be centered on actions, not people! It’s easy to say, “You did a bad job” and walk away. It requires more thought to explain why a project missed the mark and what could’ve been done differently. There’s many ways to critique work and performance without making personal attacks.

Create a conversation, not a lecture

Constructive criticism isn’t a one-way chat. It’s a conversation. Make a conscious effort to avoid talking over people and also welcome questions and feedback from others. What you don’t want to do is rattle off a never ending list of everything that went wrong. This is not only overwhelming but reduces the chance of ensuring the recipient understands your feedback. You want them to leave the conversation with the knowledge to perform stronger next time.

Nurture a positive feedback culture in your workplace

employee experience platform

Positive reinforcement goes a long way for team coherence, morale, and job performance. Just as it’s important to talk about misses, it’s also important to talk about wins.

So, how can you effectively nurture a positive feedback culture in your workplace? Let your intranet software help! This is an excellent place for you to bring everyone in your company together. Whether employees work in the same building or you have frontline workers, you’re able to communicate about projects, share feedback, and collaborate on projects.

Destructive feedback can feel soul crushing and instills an atmosphere that no one wants to work in. Don’t let this take root in your organization. Build a community that’s supportive, uplifting, and constructive, which is reflected in the criticism people give and the way everyone treats each other. Your entire organization will benefit from it!

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Alex is the Marketing Manager at Axero Solutions, dedicated to creating valuable content to help companies work smarter and together. Alex previously worked in communications and journalism throughout the tri-state area.

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