The Constructive Criticism Trap
“When we are closed to ideas, what we get is criticism. When we are open to ideas, what we get is advice.” – Simon Sinek
Everyone seems to want the feedback, but the truth is that not many of us are ready for it.
I spent five years working alongside a CEO that I consider one of the best leaders I have spent time with. He was visionary, persuasive, and easy to work for. One of his legacy philosophies was “Feedback is a gift.” He would say it repeatedly, and employees would parrot it mockingly when he was not around. The problem was that whilst he was passionate about feedback, those receiving it became less eager to receive it. This was usually because the feedback was not pretty, and usually not what they would consider constructive.
Feedback is not a gift or a privilege. It is an assessment of what we have delivered in comparison with what was expected. It can be very useful if we are open to it, or crushing if we are not.
Constructive criticism is the late-night-home-shopping-network-fitness-machine of feedback. It works to some degree, but what we are ultimately trying to achieve cannot be achieved with it. Providing constructive criticism takes talent – patience, emotional intelligence, articulateness, warmth, intuition, and precision. People with this collection of skills are uncommon which makes our quest for constructive criticism equally difficult.
Constructive criticism is feedback handed over more gently. It is feedback that doesn’t hurt our feelings. When you consider how fragile we are as human beings, this is a big ask of the world. Not only are we asking for something from someone that mainly benefits us, we are asking for it to be provided in a manner that suits us too. That is a lot of conditions for gathering information that is ultimately in our best interests.
As human beings, our most rewarding relationships are based on ease of use. Our best friends are usually those that allow us to say whatever we think and not feel judged or offensive. Alternatively, consider the last time you attended a function with a room of strangers. Making sure that the words coming out of our mouths are appropriate can be tiring. Saying what we think is easy, and is easy to come by. Saying what we think in a measured, publicly sensitive way is much more difficult.
There is a difference between being blunt (saying your piece without softening the delivery) and being rude. Being rude is a completely different weapon.
We are a precious species. If someone does not like our shoes, our hair, our proposal, or our ideas, we take offence or become defensive. We may disengage in the name of self-preservation and take some time before we expose ourselves again. It is human nature, and it is why seeking feedback is so complicated. But if we can digest it, it can be one of our greatest assets.
Asking for feedback is the easy bit. What happens afterwards is the tricky part.