Sunday, June 22, 2014

"How to Take Criticism"

Taking criticism is a skill. You learn to do it well by doing it over and over again.

If you reach adulthood without ever having heard a disparaging word about your work performance, for example, you might feel annihilated the first time you receive criticism.

Sue Shellenbarger offers good suggestions for how to take criticism on the job, but she begins her Wall Street Journal article with the ways that people take criticism badly. She then recommends tactics that can be used to recover from intemperate responses to criticism.

And yet, I was most struck by this paragraph:

Many employees don't get much practice fielding negative feedback, managers say. It is out of vogue, for one thing: Some 94% of human-resources managers favor positive feedback, saying it has a bigger impact on employees' performance than criticism, according to a 2013 survey of 803 employers by the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce. Performance reviews are infrequent, with 77% of employers conducting them only once a year.

Shellenbarger is suggesting that self-esteemism has taken over the minds of business executives. Surely, there is merit in the notion that people should be praised for their accomplishments, but allowing someone to believe that he never makes mistakes can only breed arrogance. And it also produces people who have extremely thin skin.

The thinner the skin the greater the pain.

It’s not just about not being able to take criticism. Many employees cannot deal with any suggestion that their performance is less than optimal. Even if a review is not couched as criticism, some people tend to see it as a threat, not as a chance to improve.

In fact, a belief in perfection is the enemy of improvement. If you believe that you always get it right there is no room for improvement, no reason to strive to do a better job.

You can tell if you are thin-skinned or inexperienced in the art of accepting criticism by looking at Shellenbarger’s chart.

There are four wrong ways to receive criticism. They are: getting angry, crying, denying and blaming others. Those who respond in any of these ways and do not know enough not to express them will undermine themselves.

If, perchance you have undergone a form of psychotherapy that it has taught you to feel your authentic feelings and the express them, you can  see that it has prepared you to be a dysfunctional employee.

Of course, it is altogether possible that you will feel angry, will feel sad, will deny it all or will blame others. If so, Shellenbarger recommends that you keep it to yourself. DO NOT EXPRESS SUCH FEELINGS.

If you do fail to control yourself, you should beat a hasty retreat and think through a better response. In all cases, you should, as the chart suggests, request another meeting, one where you will be able to participate as a rational actor, not as an emotional basket case.

As for setting the context, you should understand that your boss is trying to help you to do better. It is in his interest that you improve your performance. It is in your best interest. Now, why are you mad or sad about a less than stellar review?

It might be that you had not known of your faults, flaws and foibles before they were pointed out. It’s not just that your performance was sub par but that you did not know it. Perhaps, there are other areas of your life where you are misjudging yourself. Perhaps other people are also patronizing you by allowing you to believe you are great when you are not.  The suspicion redoubles your sense of having failed.

It’s always nice to have a witty come-back to criticism, but that takes time and experience.

Shellenbarger offers one example:

Mr. Stone recalls a meeting years ago where a client tossed down on the table a report he and his colleague and co-author Sheila Heen had written and yelled, "This is a piece of s---!" Mr. Stone says his heart sank: "I'm thinking, 'This meeting is not going well.' "

But Ms. Heen had a comeback: "When you say s---, could you be more specific? What do you mean?" The questions touched off a useful two-hour discussion, Mr. Stone says. Ms. Heen confirms the account.

Heen’s comeback is priceless, but this incident also shows that people who offer criticism are often tactless and inconsiderate. In some cases executives are no more adept at offering criticism than staff members are at receiving it.

If executives have never learned how to offer suggestions that point toward improvement without sounding dismissive and threatening—to say nothing of obscene—then they too need some training in management skills.

When your boss is dismissive you are likely to feel that you have been dismissed. Sometimes people who react badly to criticism are reacting well to criticism that has been badly expressed.

It is possible to find fault with someone’s work without finding fault with him as a person. It is possible to encourage someone to improve without letting him feel that he is about to be terminated. Demoralizing your staff does not motivate them to do better.

As executive who explains that he wants his employee to succeed and that he wants the employee to have a bright future with the company is more likely to see his observations received constructively.

Perhaps executives need some practice in how to word criticism. Saying that a report is “shit” is not likely to motivate someone to write a better report.



Ares Olympus said...

It seems like part of the problem in learning how to take criticism is to also learn how to give criticism, that is: "Giving criticism is a skill. You learn to do it well by doing it over and over again."

It does seem in American life many of us are not in a position to be criticized, and when we are, politeness trumps communication. like recently, I gave a small, 10% tip, because the waitress took 15 minutes take our lunch order, seemed disinterested when she talked with us, agreed to bring more water when our food came, and never did until after I had to go find her just to ask for the check over 30 minutes later. So I was sending her a message, but maybe a 0% tip with a note even, but really I've never been a waiter, and never had a service job, and so I can say I don't know if her behavior was a pattern or a bad day.

When I am criticized I do my best to try to see things from the other person's point of view, where my boss is right, and look at where miscommunication or assumptions diverged, and show I understand his perspective.

It does seem like there's two bad directions to taking criticism - blaming others, but also apologizing too quickly, too forcefully is trouble.

Crying is extreme (especially in baseball I guess), but "taking criticism" too personally, apologizing too fast is the same thing. no crying in baseball

Maybe the predicaments goes down to guilt and shame, guilt says you didn't do your best, and shame says your best will never be good enough.

So along with "angry and sad, DO NOT EXPRESS SUCH FEELINGS", there's some sort of (undue) shame that is also troublesome.

It might be for a person who is normally passive and accomodating, his expression of anger at unfair criticism is objectively so mild that it actually opens up communication that would otherwise not happen.

And for other people who are normally aggressive and blaming, a little crying on a really bad day might defuse what really was unfair blame by a boss who was too lost in his own stress to see he was being unnecessarily rude?

So I don't think there are absolute rules in any relationships. I like the idea of separating, facts, beliefs, and opinions, mentally at least, and this can be done by speaker and listener, and when you can do that, its easier to not be rude in your criticism, and easier to hear what someone is asking for in their criticisms of you.

I've also heard the idea of meta-conversations, where two people trust each other enough to deconstruct what was said, and what was heard, and this is probably where real learning is done, while "doing it over and over again" doesn't help if you're doing the same thing hoping for different results.

Anonymous said...

Most companies don't have a clear vision for where they're going, and therefore lack objective standards and expectations of the people who work for them.

Without a clear business strategy, managers aren't comfortable rating their subordinates, because they have nothing to rate performance against. That's why everyone gets an A or a B grade, and comments are nice gobbledygook to maintain pleasantries and appearances.

A company lacking leadership breeds mutual dependency throughout the workforce. The people who do provide constructive assessments are hated for being arbitrary and personal, even if they try to soften the landing. If the managers have any fire to win, HR will try to pound it out of them.

When no one knows what's expected of them because the only directives they get are "make more money" and "cut costs," you get meaningless reviews that are a waste of time for everyone and are in place to satisfy the lawyers.

So, as always, the rot starts at the top of any organization. Few have the courage to set a clear goal, say "follow me!" and assess whether the people who follow are the right people for the journey. Can they support the organization in reaching its objective? Do they have industry, enterprise and initiative? Can they help the organization win? That's what efficient, coordinated employment is fundamentally about: winning. Can the employee contribute to the mission or not? That's the only standard that matters. Few organizations take this path, which is why performance reviews are so dreaded, and why the vast majority aren't worth the paper they're printed on.