How you accept and give criticism will determine a great deal about how you succeed—in both life and career. Managing and profiting from criticism is a key skill at work and at home. Not becoming a punching bag for critics is equally important.
Criticism is dynamite. There are few more visceral fight or flight moments than when you’re criticized. Being criticized sets up a whole set of chemical reactions in our bodies, our temperature rises, our heart beats faster. A cold wave of negative energy flows through our bodies.
How do you personally react to criticism? If you’re open, calm, and collected, you’ve probably taught yourself that unusual ability. It’s a great skill that doesn’t come naturally.
Being negative to being criticized is not all bad.
Avoiding criticism is a reaction not unlike when your hand gets too close to the fire, and you recoil. It is truly like the reaction to pain. Your brain considers that in criticism the very core of yourself is being threatened. Reacting to criticism is a protective function of the brain. It is the brain’s reactive system to protect who you are.
Yet the disastrous accounts of managers and organizations who ignored negative feedback— only to lead their organizations over the cliff—are too numerous to even name. Hearing negative feedback—criticism—is the only way people and organizations can make mid-course corrections that allow them to continue. Like a speeding automobile, criticism is the modifying factor that keeps us on the road.
Total Transparency? Let’s Look at Bridgewater
Adam Grant, in his recent podcast, WorkLife, interviewed Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the most successful hedge fund in the world. Based on early failures when Dalio admits he listened to no one, at Bridgewater he has created a culture among his 2,000 employees of saying what they think on the spot, without holding anything back. Dalio attributes the success of Bridgewater to that culture of total transparency. Dalio’s perspective is that there is no reason to react negatively to negative criticism and that most issues can be immediately and easily corrected in a culture of total transparency.
Does Total Transparency Exist—Can You Say What You Believe—Anytime?
Bridgewater has definitely developed a robust culture where employees report that it is the strong that survive. They report that employees learn and grow. If you believe Glassdoor exit interviews, however, all the dynamics of politics are alive and well at Bridgewater, and employees, as in most environments, work to make themselves look good. I’m going to doubt that employees at Bridgewater always say what they think.
Here’s What’s True about Criticism in Organizations:
- Criticism Should be Handled with Care. Criticism is like Dynamite—it can blast a tunnel through a mountain to the other side—or it can blow up a good part of a city. You must always be careful with criticism.
- Not Every Criticism Has Your Good in Mind—Don’t Become a Punching Bag for the Crowd. People criticize for many reasons. Sometimes they’re dead right about a weakness you have that you need to change. At other times they’re establishing their own superiority and their place above you in the pack. Listen openly with caution.
- Sometimes You’re Right—Even in the Face of Overwhelming Criticism. You find yourself in the minority view, and sometimes standing alone, and no matter the criticism, you have to stand your ground.
- Every Criticism has Merit—We Should Listen and Learn. There is almost always benefit from any criticism—no matter from whom or for what reason. The right corrective criticism with the right response can catapult your career forward.
A Check List for Handling Criticism
- Create an Appetite for Criticism. The basic reason we fear criticism is a fundamental lack of confidence ourselves. Here’s a metaphorical way of explaining. If I’m a Ferrari, I’m looking for any aspect of my system that is keeping me from racing forward at 200 mph. I want to know and resolve any internal issue. On the other hand, if I’m a scooter, I’m just trying to tell you that I’m better than walking. If you criticize my slowness, my response is, “Hey, at least I’m not on foot like you are.” We hate criticism from a position of weakness.We have to get into the frame of mind that criticism will improve me–that’s when I develop a taste for criticism. So what if the criticism is coming from a person who wants my job? If the criticism is true it will help me better deal with them. Create a culture that has an appetite for criticism.
- When You’re Criticized, Get a Third Party Opinion. Is it true I was a jerk at the meeting? Did my presentation suck as bad as some people thought? Ask people you trust, people you don’t trust, people you like, and those you don’t. Get their feedback, but don’t be ruled by the crowd. You are CEO of who you are–make your own final decision.
- Use a 360 Degree Feedback System. The right type of criticism/feedback can actually be an organization’s competitive edge. What are the real factors that block our organization’s ability to deliver products and services today? How are we doing as an organization? What will keep us from scaling? With a 360-degree feedback system, you ask the right questions and get the right answers–the absolute key to organizational success or failure.
- Develop a communication Feedback Pipeline—that Flows Both Ways. If you believe that you have a communication system, with newsletters, emails, and all hands meetings, you have a one-way pipeline–from management to employees. An organization cannot be successful unless it is getting feedback from the people who are making it happen. “Management By Walking Around” and getting employee opinions worked 30 years ago, but a modern real-time two-way communication pipeline is necessary for today. It needs to leverage technology and never forget face-to-face communication.
If we are honest, even in the best of organizations, people feel that if they criticize, their careers and jobs could be in jeopardy. Management often puts a gag order on criticism. Yet the information that people aren’t giving us could very well ruin us. Open and honest feedback is not just nice—it’s survival. If you would like to find landmines in your organization and keep them from blowing the place up, feedback is our business. Call Carol Kallendorf, Ph.D. or Jack Speer.
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