Crit­i­cal roles

Ac­cept­ing neg­a­tive feed­back is one thing; util­is­ing it is an­other

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - WELLBEING -

IHAVE a friend, a suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur, who doles out neg­a­tive feed­back as un­re­servedly as so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers dish out com­pli­ments. There is ab­so­lutely no mal­ice to it. On the con­trary, he be­lieves that he is pro­vid­ing an op­por­tu­nity for self-de­vel­op­ment or, as he puts it him­self: “Ac­quain­tances give com­pli­ments; true friends give crit­i­cism”.

In the early days, these right-be­tween-theeyes chats felt like get­ting punched in the stom­ach sev­eral times. Nowa­days, there’s only a slight sting as I process the feed­back and won­der what I’m going to do about it.

You’ll no­tice that many en­trepreneurs are ad­vo­cates of con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, per­haps be­cause they have dealt with count­less ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and bank man­agers play­ing devil’s ad­vo­cate when they were trying to get their busi­nesses off the ground.

Elon Musk, for ex­am­ple, not only wel­comes neg­a­tive feed­back, but ac­tively seeks it. “You want to be ex­tra rig­or­ous about mak­ing the best pos­si­ble thing you can,” he says. “Find ev­ery­thing that’s wrong with it and fix it. Seek neg­a­tive feed­back, par­tic­u­larly from friends.”

Fel­low tech en­tre­pre­neur, Google co-founder, Larry Page, takes a sim­i­lar tack. He es­capes the cor­po­rate echo cham­ber by hir­ing em­ploy­ees who vig­or­ously chal­lenge his ideas.

It was Page who in­spired Kim Malone Scott, a former Google ex­ec­u­tive, to pen the lead­er­ship book, Rad­i­cal Can­dor.

“When bosses are too in­vested in ev­ery­one get­ting along they also fail to en­cour­age the peo­ple on their team to crit­i­cise one an­other for fear of sow­ing dis­cord,” she writes.

“They cre­ate the kind of work en­vi­ron­ment where be­ing ‘nice’ is pri­ori­tised at the ex­pense of cri­tiquing and there­fore im­prov­ing ac­tual per­for­mance.”

Malone raises an important point. Have we be­come so fo­cussed on in­spir­ing, mo­ti­vat­ing and em­pow­er­ing that we’ve for­got­ten the im­por­tance of re­view­ing, cri­tiquing and cor­rect­ing?

Have we be­come so anx­ious about praise-to-crit­i­cism ra­tios and serv­ing up the right “feed­back sand­wich” that we’ve for­got­ten how to de­liver hon­est crit­i­cism?

Have we be­come so blind-sided by ‘Be Awe­some’ cor­po­rate cul­ture that we don’t know how to deal with em­ploy­ees that actually aren’t all that great?

Most of us have a deep-rooted fear of crit­i­cism, espe­cially when we’re on the re­ceiv­ing end of it. But what if we could over­come this fear and learn to make crit­i­cism our friend rather than our foe?

It sounds ter­ri­fy­ing un­til we re­alise that those who be­lieve in giv­ing, and re­ceiv­ing, the bru­tal truth don’t go through the same emo­tional pro­cesses as the rest of us. They don’t wince when they hear the words, “I have to say some­thing to you”. They don’t for­mu­late knee-jerk ex­cuses when they are alerted to a mis­take they made. They don’t rush to de­fend them­selves when they re­ceive neg­a­tive feed­back.

By and large, these types have come to re­alise that a pat on the back is only six inches from a kick up the arse, hence they don’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween good feed­back and bad feed­back. It’s all good when you don’t take it per­son­ally.

Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion teacher Haemin Su­nim, writ­ing in The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, says “The per­son lead­ing you to­ward spir­i­tual awak­en­ing is not the one who praises you or is nice to you. Your spir­i­tu­al­ity deep­ens be­cause of those who in­sult you and give you a hard time. They are your spir­i­tual teach­ers in dis­guise.”

Sure, praise adds a coat of pol­ish but crit­i­cism sculpts and chis­els, if we al­low it to.

Lots of peo­ple like to think that they can ac­cept con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, but actually they’ve just learned how to bite their tongue, grit their teeth and con­struct a nar­ra­tive that ab­solves them of all re­spon­si­bil­ity.

It’s a rare few who can actually dis­man­tle their de­fence mech­a­nism and truly take in what they are hear­ing. When we re­act from behind the shield of a de­fence mech­a­nism, we go look­ing for un­der­ly­ing mo­tives and hid­den agen­das. When we drop the de­fence, we transcend the ego and re­ceive con­struc­tive crit­i­cism with grat­i­tude.

Michel de Mon­taigne put it best: “We need very strong ears to hear our­selves judged frankly, and be­cause there are few who can en­dure frank crit­i­cism with­out be­ing stung by it, those who ven­ture to crit­i­cise us per­form a re­mark­able act of friend­ship, for to un­der­take to wound or of­fend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.”

If you tend to dis­re­gard or de­flect crit­i­cism, the three strikes ap­proach could be help­ful. If you’ve heard the same crit­i­cism from three sep­a­rate peo­ple, well then it’s fairly safe to con­clude that you should do some­thing about it.

You could also try not putting so much weight on the word ‘crit­i­cism’. Many man­age­ment ex­perts ad­vise just think­ing of it as ‘data’ or ‘feed­back’.

Else­where, Hil­lary Clin­ton once ad­vised a sym­po­sium of women to learn how to “take crit­i­cism se­ri­ously, but not per­son­ally. If there is truth or merit in the crit­i­cism,” she added, “try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.”

The irony is that it’s quite easy to let crit­i­cism that is un­fair or un­grounded to “roll right off us”. What re­ally strings is the crit­i­cism that we know deep down to be true.

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