We need to keep a balance in our reaction to all criticism because there is value even in much criticism that is poorly delivered. There can be merit in critiques that are rude, or even delivered in “attack” mode. Too, we can recognize criticism at the bottom end of the scale, and dispose of empty criticism through appropriate channels before it spreads and infects other opinions and attitudes to the detriment of the organization. It helps to build immunity to the negative sort of criticism that, unfortunately, permeates certain endeavors.
With experience, knowledge, and well-placed faith in the organization comes a patience that, however unjustified and harmful some criticism may seem, it can be handled and disposed of in a forum sanctioned by the organization. This is especially important: I recently consulted in an environment where a supervisor refused to mediate a relatively minor spat between two individuals – one of whom wanted to meet to iron out difficulties in person, and the other who did not. An e-mail record well-documented the problem and the attempt at resolution. The irony? A 25-foot virtual circle would have encircled the desks and people involved, in offices along and across a single hallway.
We also need to take a look at the sponsors of different sorts of criticism and learn how best to handle those people. It is always helpful, and in most circumstances downright necessary, to consider the source. Here it is especially important to maintain a balance, as many critics are powerful people.
As we consider the receiving end of criticism, we see that too many of us assume that our efforts should be immune from criticism. In that unbalanced posture, we cannot fail to resent criticism – no matter how on target, and no matter how expertly delivered. Reasons vary, but perhaps it’s because we feel we’re doing an excellent job: we’re putting in extra hours (without being asked!), we’re “carrying” our department (“they’d be in big trouble without me”), or maybe criticism just catches us on a bad day. Often, we feel that we’re doing the best we can in murky circumstances (another reason to get The Weave under control). Therefore, when criticism is directed at some of us, we respond in a negative fashion – with negative outcomes. Responding to criticism with anger, sarcasm or defensiveness is counterproductive. At the same time, it’s counterproductive for leaders to allow others to engage in invalid criticisms. If we don’t take care, this can become a self-reinforcing cycle; for the individual, and even for the organization. Criticism and its disposition, as much as anything else, influences the organization’s culture.
For leaders, criticism can bring a particular kind of pressure. Too much pressure for anyone can lead to an imbalance: the stumble of mistakes that otherwise wouldn’t be made. Pressure can yield bad judgments. Managers – Business and Technical alike – should watch for undue sensitivity to criticism; in them and in helping others. Ultimately, everyone needs to inculcate a healthy perspective to criticism – this includes the deliverer and recipient. Balanced people are aware of the appropriate, positive, responses to criticism – take what is positive, accurate, suggestions for the betterment of business and yourself, and move along. This healthy perspective toward criticism, and the appropriate method in delivery, receipt, and disposition, will defuse sensitivities and lead to progress. None of this is to say that we should ignore egregious instances of pure belittlement. Leaders need a balanced, objective, ability to weigh criticism, assign the relevant worth, and dispatch or handle it on that assigned basis.
Cloaked Criticism: As mentioned above, there can be validity in criticism that is poorly delivered. This leads us to acknowledge a category of criticism that is generally not addressed in other discussions. It is a category that is especially important to IT and Business, as we cannot afford to miss important requirements and details (regardless of source).
Simply, cloaked criticism is either constructive or destructive criticism that has the appearance of the other.
For example, you may receive “constructive” criticism that has you doing busy-work at the expense of emerging priorities. The critic may have a good heart, but in this case the criticism will destruct our efficiency. Too there is criticism that has the appearance of destructive criticism, but which nonetheless contains merit. In pressure environments, criticism that is often legitimate (therefore valid), gets perceived as unjustified criticism: it is criticism that comes to us in anger, or as an attack, and therefore it is poorly expressed. Regardless, the issues may be legitimate. If something is in dire need of attention, we can’t afford to miss it just because we don’t care for the critic or his delivery.
Therefore, in all cases we need to recognize that criticism isn’t always packaged correctly – like anything else, the delivery of criticism won’t be perfect. In extreme cases, we could say that criticism is “cloaked.” Because some “constructive” criticism can yield poor outcomes, and because some “destructive” criticism can have value in part or all of it, we’ll discuss how to recognize this cloaked criticism. We can then handle it according to what it truly represents; we pan for the legitimate portions of critical information, and neutralize whatever remains.
We’ll take a couple days’ break from our discussion of criticism, but in the coming month we’ll weave a furtherance of this important topic through the blog.
NP: Oh, Mother I’m Wild – Jack Kaufman, original Columbia 78rpm disc, 1919 – played on a red mahogany Victrola.