Your critique of a colleague's work has the power to shut them down or motivate them further. Even offhand observations can stick in someone's mind and be misinterpreted as displeasure or praise.
We all need to consider our intentions behind offering a suggestion or comment in a professional atmosphere. Are you trying to bend things towards your own expectations? Are you hoping to make a project better? Or maybe you're just trying to be heard in a busy work environment? All are valid, human responses, and you can make an argument for acting upon any of them. But remaining oblivious to the motivations behind your critiques may cause unnecessary turmoil — and that's easily avoidable.
Paying It Forward
At the core of criticism, there should always be an intent to assist. If you clearly understand your colleague's mission, then offering a suggestion (whether prompted or not) is ideally an action meant to help them accomplish it. This is the kind of social investment that pays dividends when it's time for your work to go under the microscope. And yet, it's not about establishing a quid pro quo arrangement where you give a helpful note and expect one in return. When you're paying it forward, you don't wait for a tip.
The point of criticism is aligning your vision with other creatives and helping them see additional possibilities for achieving a targeted result. Sometimes that means pointing out a serious shortcoming in their strategy — which can often be the most helpful critique. But even then, your intent should be focused on their goal as if it were your own. If you don't know what it is, ask; if they don't know what it is, then you've just helped by pointing that out.
Love is Tough
The truth hurts sometimes, especially when there's a lot of emotion invested in a project that just won't come together. When it's time to offer a dose of reality, tact is key. It's too easy to justify harsh comments by claiming “tough love”, which is a convenient shorthand for intentionally withholding your empathy. The “love” part of this kind of advice has to be offered as well, no matter how levelling some feedback may be.
There will always be creatives out there who need to learn lessons the hard way, but that doesn't absolve you of the responsibility to exercise a bit of diplomacy and consider the best way to share your criticism. The onus of sensitivity doesn't fluctuate with the severity of critique. Be honest, straightforward, and mindful (i.e. a professional).
Good communication is at the heart of smooth collaboration, and never is it more necessary to communicate effectively than when pointing out perceived failings in another’s work. There's no way to fully anticipate how your feedback will be received, though tip-toeing around major issues is never a worthwhile solution — and in some cases, it can even become a setback.
Choose to be proactive instead and meaningfully connect with your collaborators. Check in with how you've helped them, if at all. Open the lines of communication and express your desire to both be better at empowering others while letting them know you're open to receiving their input too. It's a way to set expectations so any critical thoughts get funnelled towards realizing positive potential. The more sincere and tactful our suggestions are, the more constructive our professional learning experiences will be.