Wednesday 13 December 2017

Critical roles

Accepting negative feedback is one thing; utilising it is another

Elon Musk Photo: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
Elon Musk Photo: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

I have 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-the-eyes 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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