Criticism, part 1: How we give it

Criticism is a loaded topic in upholstery right now – so much destruction has been inflicted in the name of criticism. Done badly, with malice or haste, it has catastrophic power to demotivate, or shame people into hiding their uncertainties, instead of seeking out guidance.

And yet, criticism is ESSENTIAL for growth.

So how do we cultivate feedback loops that have the power to pull people up, instead of pushing them down? How do we find that for ourselves?

This is a blog post that deserves reflection, and two installments. I’m going to start with curated recommendations for OFFERING feedback. Next week, I’ll focus on soliciting and receiving it. (Read that post HERE)

I’m certainly no expert – in fact, I’m writing these for myself as much as anyone. But I hope you’ll find value here, too.

Let’s dive in. . .

Imagine you work for Target. Constructive criticism will be part of your work life. Feedback is a given, it is expected, and it is important. It’s also coming from a small handful of direct contacts.

Now imagine that your desk is on First Avenue. All day long, anyone can stick their head in and assess your job performance. This includes people who know nothing about your work, and don’t particularly care if you succeed.

Can you see the difficulties that would create?

How long before you either A. Quit or B. Built up an impenetrable (and arguably necessary) shell against feedback?

Our first hurdle is that most everyone in upholstery today basically has a desk on First Avenue – Not only do they work there, they had to LEARN there.

For lack of better options, our current shared workspace is the internet, where every yahoo on the globe can bear public witness to our every step.

So before we begin, let’s all bear in mind: in most cases, we’re showing up as one more stranger sticking our uninvited head into someone’s already overtaxed cubicle.

#1. It starts with trust

Effective feedback isn’t a no-contact delivery – it has to be received.

I don’t know how much constructive criticism you’ve ever received, but it requires a lot of vulnerability, which in turn requires trust.

When people have already had enough stupid, malicious, and poorly articulated feedback to choke a horse . . . trust and vulnerability are a tough sell.

The best thing we can do as a community is advocate for spaces where seeking feedback is applauded, not shamed. (This is harder to sustain than you think.) The National Upholstery Association and The Professional Upholsterers Network are two organizations currently working hard to create such virtual spaces.

The best thing we can do as individuals is realize that the relationship must come before the feedback – not the other way around.

#2. It’s best to be invited in

Hi! You’re a vampire. THEY have to open the door. Because the very best kind of feedback is feedback people WANT. Ooooh it’s magical.

Do NOT just walk into someone’s living room and start pointing out stains on the carpet.

How do you get invited in? Hang around the neighborhood! Wave at people! Let them know you have some fence building skills, and by the way, this hammer!!! Better yet. help BUILD the neighborhood – because we don’t HAVE many.

Assuming you are not someone’s direct supervisor or instructor, giving feedback is a privilege, not a right.

(And if you ARE someone’s direct supervisor, this is still a topic worth researching, because feedback is a slippery art indeed.)

#3. Don’t blindside people.

In the traditional workplace, this would mean establish times and routines, so people can mentally and emotionally prepare – you wouldn’t just ambush someone in the middle of their lunch and start unloading. Hello? Can I finish my sandwich?

Give people a chance to opt in on THEIR schedule. Let them know you’re available, and what you’re offering to provide, IF they’re interested.

This might sound like, “Hi! it sounded like you’re struggling with X – that happens to be an area of expertise for me. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share some insights.”

(And like it or not – if they are not interested, you don’t get to FORCE your feedback on anyone – that’s why #1 and #2 are so important)

#4. PRI-VATE-LY

Someone’s public work page is NOT the place to leave letter grades, or photos of your own work, or scathing assessments.

It’s actually not even the place to leave well-intentioned criticisms. That person is WORKING. Their clients are probably reading that page. So are their potential clients.

So PLEASE. Unless someone has very explicitly asked for critical public comment, do NOT.

(And don’t assume that people aren’t getting feedback, just because you can’t see it. Someone else’s feedback does not owe us an audience.)

#5. Have some empathy and recognize the positive.

My biggest frustration with upholstery feedback right now, is the number of people who completely overlook how hard students have to work to access even sporadic training. If you want to help someone, it’s worth a pause to consider what they’ve accomplished. Recognize the wins.

And if you have no idea what their professional journey has included thus far, then you aren’t the person meant to give them difficult feedback. At least not at this time.

(Side note though regarding positivity: Personally, I don’t love the compliment sandwich. I think it runs the risk of sounding obvious and even condescending. If you lead with a bunch of atta girls, it feels like you’re pandering, and sugar coating something for a kid. We’re all grown-ups – IF you’ve been invited in, your feedback should be expected and appreciated. Say something positive, MEAN IT, but move on. Nobody needs six appetizers before the main course.)

#6. Make it specific and actionable

“Your cushion looks like garbage” isn’t helpful.

“Your pattern is a little off in the front. Are you remembering to accurately measure and mark centers? You may want to try a cushion stapler to ensure that it doesn’t move when you sew. Here’s a link to one of my favorite videos/books you may find helpful.”

The point of constructive criticism is to improve people. Good constructive criticism gives tools for doing better. THIS IS NON-NEGOTIABLE. If you don’t have the tools (time, patience, resources), move on. Just telling someone their work is bad doesn’t give them anything of value, and it decreases the likelihood that they’ll seek feedback in the future.

#7. Focus on your five

I chose five as a completely arbitrary number, because it sounded nice.

But my point is, focus on your inner circle. You can’t give quality feedback to every second person on the internet. And if you try, you’ll end up adding to the staggering heap of unproductive feedback that people are already receiving.

Decide who you actually want to work with, who you’re in a position to help (and if they want you to) and put sufficient energy there. When it comes to criticism, quality is FAR better than quantity.

Then encourage them to pay the process forward to THEIR five.

#8. Respect that they may not want it or need it or use it.

Maybe you think they need to work on tufting, but their current focus is client processes. Maybe they feel perfectly good about where their skills are at. Maybe they just think you’re a doorknob.

MAYBE they think you’re great, but they disagree with your assessment of what is best for their business.

For all kinds of reasons, we turn down criticism. You are free to offer feedback, but understand that unless you are someone’s direct supervisor, you have no actual authority to make them take it.

Respect that people are allowed to chart their own journey.

#9. Get clear with your own motivations

Are you looking to criticize someone else’s work because it makes you feel better about your own? If so, you probably aren’t reading my blog, but if you are: Shame on you. Go work on yourself and leave other people alone. (How did that feedback land with you? Just checking.)

Are you looking to demonstrate your own skills and knowledge? If so, use your own platform, not someone else’s. Demonstrating exceptional work can be a very valid means of elevating others. If you can model great technique and speak intelligently about it? Hallelujah! Please do. I’d be beyond stoked to see more tradespeople posting their amazing work. But using anyone else’s social media to promote yourself is trolly and gross.

Are you criticizing others because you don’t want to “condone bad work?” Being quiet isn’t the same as giving your personal stamp of approval. And criticizing someone is NOT the same as empowering them to improve. If you don’t like their work, unfollow and move along. Don’t hire them. Don’t recommend them. By all means, take your superior skills and compete with them – game on!!!! But drive-by critiquing someone else’s work is empty calorie junk.

Finally, if your motivations are actually to help, if you are criticizing someone because you genuinely believe they are capable of doing better work, invest in building a relationship, and learn more about how to be effective in your delivery. Because it’s TOUGH.

And if you read that last paragraph and thought, ‘I just want to give feedback and move on, it’s their problem to deal” then maybe don’t.

Look for other ways to contribute. Because I guarantee, whoever you think needs criticism has already received plenty. They don’t need MORE feedback. They need BETTER feedback.

Quality, friends. Not quantity.


Our second post is now up – Criticism Part 2: How to Get it

Thanks for reading, and let us know what you think!

Cynthia


There are plenty of resources out there for learning about constructive criticism (which speaks to the fact that is is a difficult concept to master) Most are really focused at traditional employee/manager relationships, but I like this one a lot:

And if you are curious about the impact of destructive criticism,, I’d highly recommend this episode of WorkLife:

The Office without Assholes

4 thoughts on “Criticism, part 1: How we give it

  1. My heart is saddened about the experiences that generated this blog.
    I am thankful that you have a voice and are courageous enough to use it.
    Being in a creative community makes me excited to face the everyday opportunities and challenges. It is mostly a wonderful group of people – but then there are some….. that push you write a blog like this.
    Love you girl!
    Thank you

  2. Cynthia, you touch on so many important topics here! A huge pet leave of mine is unsolicited negative feedback on people’s business pages!!! I wish your experience hadn’t made this blog necessary, but I’m so glad that you can articulate it so beautifully!!

  3. What a great insight into constructive criticism and how to give and receive. Bravo Cynthia for obviously thinking long and hard about how to articulate the problems of learning and improving upholstery skills in the public/professional eye. There are many people myself included , that would be smart to read this. 👏🏻👏🏻

  4. Thank you, Cynthia! This subject requires a measure of force, which you wield in a way that’s both entertaining and informative. A book suggestion to add to your resources: “Thanks for the Feedback, The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

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