How to Critique Team Ideas with Tact
You’re in a meeting with coworkers, fellow volunteers, or friends. The current phase of the meeting could be entitled “brainstorming” and you’re struggling to find a new solution.
Someone speaks up with an excited proclamation: “I have an idea!” *enthusiasm ensues*
The idea gets explained with more enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, as you listen, unfortunately the first thought that comes to your mind is, “No, this is terrible. We cannot do this.”
Obviously, you can’t just say this. It would be a big blow to the speaker, and you’d quickly deflate the team’s energy. Then they’d look at you with piercing eyes and say, “Well, what do you suggest, O Wise One?”
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That’s definitely something we want to avoid. So how can you give honest feedback while still contributing positively to the team setting? How do you turn your negative feedback into progress instead of a personal attack?
Hi, I’m Hannah. I tend to be a strongly logical and critical thinker. But I also tend to be very people-pleasing and cautious of conflict (hello, Enneagram 9).
Learning how to productively give negative feedback without unnecessarily offending people is vital to learn. But it takes time and practice.
I have gone to both extremes of bluntly giving my opinion with a “they’ll get over it” attitude or sometimes withholding helpful insights because I didn’t want to make a wave.
By far, the most productive way to contribute to a team is to give honest feedback with tact.
Here a few principles that have me aided me in my quest to word feedback in a productive way:
1. Take a deep breath before you say anything.
As much as that gut-level instinct tells you this proposed idea is a bad idea and needs to be stopped immediately, there is usually very little difference that takes place in a matter of minutes. Even if the next person to speak up totally applauds the presented idea, that doesn’t mean you can’t still share your feedback as well. It is far more worth it to take a deep breath (or a few) to clear your mind and prevent you from blurting out something you’ll regret.
2. Remember the ultimate goal and vision of the team.
Sometimes your personal opinion on the new idea is completely irrelevant because the idea can be dismissed on the basis of irrelevancy to the team’s vision and goal.
For example, let’s say you’re part of a team dedicated to providing bus rides to church for people in the area who are in need. The current task at hand is to figure out how to effectively get the word out to these people that you exist. If someone proposes the idea to post a blog post on social media about The Importance & History of Vehicular Transportation to get attention, then it doesn’t matter if you like the idea or not. This particular piece on social media doesn’t actually help your cause because it distracts the audience from what you need to communicate.
In this situation, center your feedback on the lack of relevance instead of leading with or providing your personal opinion. You could say, “while I’m sure an article like that could be cool and informative, I don’t think it really gets our point across.”
Hopefully, it opens up a conversation more about the effectiveness of the idea and less about making someone feel dumb for proposing their idea.
3. Look for the positives in the proposed idea.
Most likely, in every terrible idea proposed, there are at least some good contributions or motivators behind it. It is a myth that an invested member of your team would intentionally propose a terrible idea just to throw you off track.
Once you pinpoint the good pieces within a proposal, you can use it to phrase your feedback in such a way that highlights those specific pieces, while also pitching a new course of action. If you can’t find a salvageable piece to highlight, consider asking more questions to let the presenter explain more.
“I love that you want to engage people in this friendly way to let them know about our buses, but I personally don’t see how that would provide the results we want.”
“I’m not sure I understand your idea completely. Can you expand a little more on how you think this would help us get the word out?”
Next up: one my favorite principles.
4. Ask thought-provoking questions about the idea.
Sometimes the idea brought forth hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out by the speaker. Questions that take into account the goal of the team, the purpose of the idea, why they think their idea would work, and how it could be accomplished will help shape the conversation around the idea without rejecting it right from the start.
Asking questions gives the presenter’s idea a chance, which is what most people want. It can also save you from embarrassment if the idea ends up being very well considered and appropriate. Your gut-level instinct isn’t always accurate. Perhaps the person speaking has more information than you currently do.
However, if the idea ends up not standing up to your questions, you may find that the idea withers away on its own and you don’t feel like the bad guy.
5. Provide alternative suggestions.
While you may not have the perfect answer to the problem in your head, you can always try to make suggestions that adjust for the proposed idea you don’t like. If they suggest something that you see immediate problems with, try focusing intently on solutions to these specific problems rather than your overwhelming dislike of the whole idea. Then, when you bring up the problems with their idea, you can simultaneously provide possible solutions.
This tactic can fast-track a conversation by increasing the feasibility of an idea without having to put the other idea down. Suggestions move conversation forward, and you’ll always be a contributor to progress if you make a suggestion.
6. Keep an open mind.
This one is the hardest to remember in the moment. Just because you viscerally dislike an idea doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong action to take. Perhaps the target market demands this kind of action for optimal response — even if you wouldn’t personally respond if you were the recipient.
The best way to differentiate your opinion on the idea from whether or not it’s the best action to take is to remember the goal, appreciate the expert knowledge from others on your team, and do your best to judge ideas on the basis of effectiveness. It’s not always about your opinion, and your opinion isn’t always right.
It’s important to remember that people who propose ideas in team settings will evaluate the response their idea receives. It can determine whether or not they decide to contribute in the future. If their idea gets a smack-down, it might discourage them from ever trying again.
As you make your response, don’t forget that you’re working with people. The more you can do to separate the people from the idea, the better off you’ll be.
Hannah Linde is the former Student Community Coordinator & Marketing Manager for Unbound Student Life. She loves people, hiking, and learning, but most importantly loves raising her two little boys — Clarke and Ollie. She is a 2016 Unbound Alumna with a BSBA in Project Management from Liberty University and passionate about the Unbound community.