The Benefits of Ruthless Collaborative Critique

Communication is difficult. And we’ve all seen reports that needed better peer review, important yet confusing emails, presentations that could have been much, much better, etc. In my experience, many of these situations could have been avoided if the creator had gotten the honest feedback they were asking for.

Unfortunately, many people are afraid to challenge their coworkers — what if someone’s feelings get hurt? Crucial conversations are hard, so people often don’t really “own” the responsibility of reviewing.

When the cost of error or poor communication is high — think offer letters, legal docs, broad communication, estimates, etc. — find someone who’s willing to give you ruthless critique.

A History of Mutual Honesty

I’ve been fortunate to have an outstanding business pair for the last ten years (Shawn Crowley). We’re both very opinionated, and our working model has always included a lot of peer review. For as long as I can remember, we’ve always shared our straight observations and opinions of the other person’s work. I know that I can always count on Shawn to thoughtfully review my work and challenge it from multiple angles. I’ve also worked hard to show his work that same respect.

Our differing opinions have, at times, led to intense debate. But that debate has always led to an enhanced deliverable. (Importantly, the intensity of the debate is always about the work and never about the person.) Once we settle on a direction, we’ve always maintained a unified voice on the deliverable, which has created shared ownership and responsibility for the outcome.

I’ve started to call this extremely thoughtful, very direct, and sometimes contentious review a ruthless critique.

Our ability to ruthlessly critique each other’s work is something that has come naturally for us — perhaps because of our personalities. It’s likely also been helped by our similarity in age, gender, and role. Whatever the case, it’s been positive. And, over time, it’s enhanced our trust in one another.

Two men working together at a computer

The Value of Ruthless Critique

Many people are willing to review each other’s work but are less willing to really ruthlessly critique it. Here are four benefits I see to being really ruthless.

  • Better Results – A ruthless critique helps identify weaknesses and enhance strengths in my work. Having my work truly challenged forces me to improve the deliverable.
  • Stronger Working Relationships – Receiving ruthless critique, debating the work, and aligning on a deliverable has always made me feel more respect for the person giving the critique.
  • Leveling Each Other Up – Ruthless critiques have helped grow my own skillset over time. Shawn’s critiques have made me a more precise writer — better at explaining complexity and more aware of other ways my words could be interpreted.
  • An Aligned Voice – When work is ruthlessly critiqued, it becomes “shared” work. Both parties feel ownership of the ideas and the deliverable.

How to Make it Happen

Interested in giving ruthless critiques a try? Here are the high-level rules.

1. Establish Psychological Safety

You need to start with psychological safety. Both people need to understand that the critique is just about the work and not about the person — that there will be no hard feelings, lingering resentment, or retaliation. We are all fragile people; it’s good to periodically revisit this conversation and reassure each other.

2. Put in the Effort

When it’s your turn to critique, don’t short change it, don’t sugar coat it, and don’t say, “It’s great!” if it isn’t excellent. Thoughtfully review the material, and challenge the points that could be enhanced. Consider multiple angles, and actively look for gaps and holes in the other person’s work.

3. Support the Final Deliverable Like it’s Yours – Because it Is

Once you’ve given your critique, never second guess the final deliverable. If you don’t believe the final deliverable is correct, don’t give up on the debate.

It’s my belief that everyone wants real constructive feedback on their work. Let’s not cheat each other. Give ruthless critique a try.