Criticism Is Better Than Applause
Do perfectionists despise praise?
I’m not a true perfectionist, but I imagine they might. Praise on its own never rings true if you’re seeking self improvement; for that you need constructive feedback and criticism. You pay your trainer in the gym to shout at you to give one more rep when it feels like you’ve got nothing left to give, not to tell you the first ten were just fine, you look ripped and you should grab a milkshake as a reward. Still, some people hate criticism, in fact at times we all can when it’s given badly.
In a work environment it can be difficult to separate criticism of an outcome from criticism of a person. Whether it be a customer, a colleague, or a boss, dissatisfaction of a result can sound like dislike for a person, which will always result in that valuable feedback getting lost in a lot of emotion as it hurts to be told you’re crap. It’s not surprising we take it personally, look up synonyms for criticism and you get ‘disapproval’, ‘disparaging’, ‘denigration’. Ouch. But that should never be the intention of the criticism, the true intention is to help someone do it better next time.
If you’re giving criticism then a simple way to avoid causing offence is the “hamburger method” where you place the meat of your criticism between two “compliment buns” to make it a little easier to swallow. A slightly better method is “Continue / Stop / Start” where feedback is structured with first what someone is doing well that you want them to continue doing, then what behaviour or outcome you want them to stop doing, and finally what they don’t do yet that you can recommend they start doing to help. I use this all the time, with work colleagues, suppliers, or when I am giving feedback as a customer. If you’re getting criticized and it hurts, think about asking the person to re-frame what they’re saying like this.
Enough about giving criticism, I want to receive it! Mark Thomas on The Guardian’s Professionals blog gave a succinct list of Six Reasons Why Criticism Is A Good Thing about a year ago. My favourite is that feedback makes your product stronger, and of course the product is your work output. Whenever I do something new I will ask others an open question like: how could I do it better? Often times friends or colleagues feel much more comfortable giving praise (“you did great”, “well done”, etc). I never take that, I want the bad news more than the good. Praise makes me lazy, it makes me complacent. I want to surround myself with people who are happy to be honest about the things I missed. And the more criticism I get the easier it is to hear it. It’s often the people who shy away from criticism and latch on to praise that I see get the most upset when they eventually are confronted with someone asking them to change a behaviour or action.
These days I’m so comfortable listening to criticism I often smile as I am being given it. (Which does sometimes disconcert the person giving it to me). When doing presentations to large groups of people, colleagues say to me: “You don’t show any nerves! How are you so calm?” I respond: “That’s easy, I have no fear of failure… because I am completely comfortable with failure!” I know I won’t be perfect, I’m human, and I look forward to finding out something new about myself every time.