Criticism with care is more persuasive

July 16, 2023

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Criticism with care is more persuasive

This is a fascinating study. Although it concentrates on critical messages given to groups, other research shows that the methodology the researchers suggest be used to convey the hard messages is appropriate to individuals as well. The findings are in line with our own research in the how-to of delivering hard messages so that they have the maximum impact.

In pursuit of a more ethical world, people in business and society speak out to criticize groups for wrongdoing and call for them to change their harmful ways: Activists demand justice for victims in their campaigns, employees might call attention to unfair practices at work, journalists put a spotlight on harm in society, and business leaders speak out on political topics.

New research identifies a way that criticism across these scenarios can be made more effective. A series of experiments involving more than 1,400 participants shows that criticized groups are more likely to take a criticism to heart when the messenger not only criticizes the groups, but also shows concern for the issues that the criticized groups (or in the case of critical employee feedback, individuals) themselves face.

When criticizing groups, messengers often address the group by pointing out the harm they are doing to another group and imploring them to change their ways.

What the researchers say: “What messengers may not realize is that when a person accuses a group of harm like this, right away, members of the group may believe that the messenger views their group as immoral and does not care about their problems,” the lead author explains. “We find in our research that when messages include dual concern by expressing concern for the group that is criticized while still accusing them of causing harm, it reduces this problematic inference, and thus dual concern messages are more effective at encouraging members of a group to agree with the criticism of their own group.”

In one of the experiments, Liberals or Conservatives in the United States agreed 6.6% more with a CEO criticizing their political group in a news article if the CEO additionally acknowledged that the political group also faced harm such as being mocked and ignored by others. Participants were also 7.1% more willing to shop at the CEO’s company than when criticism was issued without care.

The research also tested the idea in campaigns: participants read a poster advocating ways to stop adding to prejudice against a group with whom they personally disagreed – whether Liberals or Conservatives, Christians or atheists, or the elderly or millennials. The poster led participants to agree 8.6% more strongly that their disfavored group faces unfair and specific prejudices when the poster conveyed that the advocates also were concerned about the prejudices that many other groups faced.

In one study, 87.3% of Liberals who said that Conservatives are harming America still agreed that “Conservatives, like anyone, deserve a voice, and their concerns should be heard. We should care for Conservatives.” But interestingly, Conservatives estimated that only 40.8% of critical Liberals would agree that Conservatives are worthy of concern. Likewise, 83.9% of Conservatives who were critical of Liberals agreed that Liberals deserve a voice and should be heard, yet Liberals estimated that only 35.3% of Conservatives would express concern for Liberals. This means that people in both political parties underestimated the concern of their ideological opponents by half.

What the research shows, the researchers summarize, is that criticism works better when it is done with care. They suggest: “When messengers point out harm or wrongdoing, they might consider: What challenges does the group that they are accusing of harm face?” Messengers may want to acknowledge these challenges, if appropriate, to signal to their audience that they are not dismissed as immoral. As messengers raise their voices to criticize one group for harming another group in the service of social change, their arguments are more persuasive when they emphasize concern for the criticized.

So, what? Prior research has shown that if an individual, or a group, is subjected to negative criticism it triggers the flight, fight, or freeze reaction of the sympathetic nervous system. This causes the message to either not be heard, or dismissed, or be vigorously challenged.

What’s more, the person or group making the criticism—or delivering negative feedback—will be seen as an enemy and the most likely result is they will double down on the offending actions or behaviors.

This can be mitigated if the person giving the feedback begins with praise, a statement showing they value, and wish to strengthen, the relationship with the individual or group receiving the feedback, or—as the researchers note—concern for the individual or group. This creates enough of a feeling of safety for the conversation to continue and for the feedback to be heard and even accepted.

Both criticism and praise are relationship statements. In a sense, the content of the feedback or criticism is irrelevant. Decisions are not made on the basis of facts or reasoning. They are made on the basis of either emotions or the real, or potential, amount of relational support that is offered.

This is true for both individuals and groups.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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