Praising Criticism

“If you want something sugar-coated, go eat a doughnut.” Ah, the wisdom of a T-shirt. Yet this little joke deftly captures the “Don’t ask me if you don’t want the truth” approach to management, an approach more youth leaders should embrace.

What a wonderful world it would be if we all did everything really well, or maybe it wouldn’t. Without mistakes—and the opportunity to do better the next time—we would lose all sense of achievement and competence.

Baby Steps

Sometimes we notice our own mistakes. Watching a baby work with a shape-sorter demonstrates how early in development our trial-and-error thinking operates. And notice what we call that type of cognition: trial-and-error. The phrase itself emphasizes repetitive mistakes. It’s not “try-and-succeed” after all. The idea is to learn from missteps.

When babies work a shape-sorter, they rarely get frustrated. Sure, some pieces get tossed, others chewed, a few lost. Mostly, though, babies’ native curiosity motivates exploration and goal-directed behavior. When a piece falls into place, it falls into the sorter, creating—for most children—a reinforcing feeling of success. And then the trial-and-error behavior starts anew.

Mince Meat

Sometime in late childhood or early adolescence many of us lose our unselfconscious drive to repeatedly try and fail. We still explore and create, but under the socially imposed shadow of needing to look smart. This inhibition has two consequences:

  1. We exaggerate our accomplishments, sometimes to the point of lying
  2. We become defensively resistant to criticism.

More and more, criticism is known by its euphemism, “feedback.” Of course, feedback can also mean praise, so for the rest of this article, let’s not mince words. Not many people are so overcome with humility that they have chronic trouble with praise. But most of us have fallen so deeply under the misguided developmental spell of needing to look competent all the time that we do have trouble with criticism. Everyone says they want it; only a few genuinely do.

Triple Threats

There are three types of criticism:

  1. Opinion
  2. Fact
  3. Coaching.

Opinion criticism (OC) happens when someone disagrees with our political stance, artistic taste, or cultural preferences. Thanks to OC, we have professions such as movie critics and political bloggers. Thanks to OC, we can argue with our grandmother at Thanksgiving about whether there should be oysters in the stuffing. And thanks to OC, one can tweet a review of this article. Because people recognize the subjective nature of OC, it’s easier to digest.

Fact criticism (FC) is the toughest to hear. FC happens when we are flat-out wrong. The capital of Uzbekistan is not Paramaribo; it’s Tashkent. If we get that one wrong on Jeopardy! or in Trivial Pursuit or for our Political Geography class, then we lose points. Done deal. It’s not fun to be wrong, but we learn. Or, at least we learn what not to do. We feel incompetent or ignorant, but there’s not always an opportunity with FC to make amends.

Sometimes, after some FC, we figure out the correct course of action all by ourselves. The player on Jeopardy! or in Trivial Pursuit will eventually hear the correct answer. At other times we have to search for it on our own. If we answer a test question incorrectly, we’ll have to look up the answer unless our teacher is kind enough to write it in for us.

Of course, there are also times when we discover, somewhat sheepishly, that we knew the correct answer or behavior all along. When the police pull us over and ticket us for speeding, that’s a memorable form of FC. Usually, cops begin with the classic rhetorical question, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Other times, they get right to the FC: “The speed limit here is 65, and I clocked you at 75.” Either way, the nerve-jangling experience of getting pulled over and cited is enough for most people to self-impose the correct speed limit (at least for the next few miles anyway).

Coaching Criticism

Camp life is replete with OC and FC. Staff and campers engage in OC when they debate their pick for the winner of the World Series or chide each other about their pop music favorites. Lifeguards do FC when they reprimand a camper for diving in the shallow end or failing to swim close to his or her buddy.

Left unspoken is the type of coaching criticism (CC) that will vastly improve most camps. Staff at all levels—from LIT/CIT to Unit Leader/Division Head—witness poor leadership-by-example in the form of tardiness, messiness, foul language, inappropriate humor, unhealthy risk-taking, and laziness. For example, when a counselor shows up 20 minutes late to run a tennis period, this is a classic opportunity for CC. It’s not opinion criticism because the schedule is clearly marked in the staff training manual. And pure fact criticism—simply saying “This period started at 9:20 a.m., and you were not here” doesn’t guarantee improvement.

When strong leaders engage in CC, they must begin with two assumptions:

  1. The camp wants to create a culture of improvement
  2. The person meant well.

If the first assumption is untrue, stop reading this article and retool your camp’s mission statement. If the second assumption is untrue, stop reading this article and rethink your hiring and firing practices. But if it’s true that the camp culture embraces continuous professional development and is populated with staff members who have the camp’s and campers’ best interests in mind, then CC will be both welcome and necessary.

Coaching criticism is honest, direct, prompt, and empathic. Whoever has noticed the flaw speaks up as soon as possible. The supervisor who notices that the tennis instructor is late to the period will find a time that same morning to speak with him or her. The supervisor will begin with the assumption that the instructor knows what time the period starts and was doing one’s best to be on time. The instructor will begin with a growth mindset that accepts coaching criticism in the spirit of helping to improve the camp and his or her own performance.

“I noticed that you were about 20 minutes late to the start of first period. I know you try to get here early to set up. What was up this morning?” is an example of CC. Honest, direct, prompt, and empathic. The idea is to get right to the point and start collaborating on a solution, not to shame the person.

Naturally, different replies will spark different conversations. If the tennis instructor slept through breakfast and the start of first period, that’s a conversation about sleep hygiene and time management. If he or she stopped to help a homesick camper, that’s a conversation about communication and balancing commitments. And if the instructor says you should chill out and not worry about when first period starts, that’s a stern conversation about the camp’s mission and the responsibility of caring for other people’s children.

The most important part of CC is that you give it. Shying away from offering constructive criticism is a disservice, both to the individual and the camp community. We have an intellectual commitment to professional development, but we bite our tongue because we know the relationship may be at stake. True, some people react poorly by getting angry, resentful, or contradictory. But if that defensiveness can’t be coached out of them, they don’t belong at your camp.

Criticism—of the coaching sort—deserves high praise. And so do your staff members when they respond to CC by upping their game. Save the sugar-coated donuts for breakfast.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit