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The Art of Criticism

07 September 2012
Author   J.W. ASHEEKE

Many people are unable to accept constructive criticism. As a result, they cannot see the forest for the trees; they cannot find the gold nuggets of good ideas because they are lost in negative emotion and their own insecurities.

They have not mastered the Art of Criticism. I designed a workshop for managers to explore this very subject.
Simply speaking, constructive criticism is where the intentions of the one giving the critique are to build up rather than tear down. It is a valid and well-intentioned opinion; it is usually specific and offers suggestions and reasons.
The attitude and tone of voice used when giving constructive criticism is important, but be aware that people who want to purposefully tear you down could also use an even temper, a big smile and nice words.
Subjective but, honest criticism is based on opinions, and may not always be right. The ‘well-intentioned’ part of the definition is the key thing to consider when weighing the value of any criticism; but it does not necessarily testify to its correctness.
It amazes me in meetings that when a criticism to a plan is made people scramble to ‘accommodate’ it with no examination of whether it is factual. There seems to be a rush to try to please everyone all of the time; this is impossible and should not be a realistic target.
Constructive criticism is an art and not everyone has artistic talent; it is not easy. Constructive criticism made insensitively or with poor timing can hurt.
Criticism taps into emotion and perception and needs good communications skills to improve its chances of being heard. Far too many people are unnecessarily threatened by ANY criticism; they want ‘groupthink’ cheerleading and full agreement, at all times, so that things are predictable, correct and smooth.
I have heard people say, “That strategic planning meeting went well. We all agreed on everything.”
My experience tells me that if new concepts and plans hit the table and no one on a well-balanced professional team disagrees with anything, I should question whether the ‘buy-in’ is being faked (given that the documents were read!)
This is the ‘go-along-to-get-along’ syndrome and it weakens institutions. People who have valid criticisms of the actions and perspectives of those ‘in charge’ are not likely to openly say so, yet they still harbour their objections and concerns.
This is like a quiet cancer eating away at buy-in. In Namibia, this syndrome is one cause of flawed programmes, waste of resources, and the passage of erroneous laws and regulations.
Yet, there is a reason many people keep quiet when they disagree or have questions. There is a pervasive intolerance of criticism in our society. “If you criticize me, you oppose me.” This is intimidating and encourages silence.
Sometimes when there is criticism about an idea or programme, the people presenting them think those disagreeing didn’t listen to them or didn’t understand their points. They say: “Let’s meet to clarify the issues.”
Indeed, it can be that someone did not hear a point being made and that caused the criticism. But, most often the people disagreeing are very clear and they understand very well, that is why they have their critiques and questions.
I think that there is a harsh and forbidding hostility directed at anyone who voices a criticism about something done or proposed by those with power. If we can only learn to understand constructive criticism better, perhaps there will be less insecurity and fear about it; and we can listen to other ways of thinking and learn.
Some people fear criticism because they feel pressured by it. Considering a criticism doesn’t necessarily mean you must change your focus or ideas to accommodate it; but it does mean you have new information to shape your decision-making processes.
Often a person’s internal insecurities decide if a criticism is constructive or not. The person feeling uncertain of themselves for a variety of reasons is likely to be more defensive at any kind of criticism.
For example, a company director’s criticism: “This plan should include a written opinion from the MD before we start the implementation phase.” A senior executive’s response: “Why are you questioning my authority?”
Whoa! Slow down! Be secure in your rank and rather probe why your team member asked for the MD’s opinion before you snap his head off for the criticism.
Sometimes, there are criticisms that are simply right. For example, if someone states in their report that Independence Day in Namibia is April 21, 1990, then they are wrong, plain and simple.
A correction of this fact is a fact-based criticism – it is not mean to destroy, but to correct a wrong. Submit to proven factual criticisms; thank the person giving the information and move on. A feeling of defensiveness about factual criticism is misdirected energy.
The difficult criticisms to manage involve opinions that are not in sync with our own. Quickly one has to decide if the criticism is positive or not. That is where perspective, background, situation, relationship history, reputation, and maturity come into play.
Using the example above about the date of Independence, let’s say someone goes further and says: “You should consider being more careful about fact-checking your work. Such an obvious error might indicate that you are not a thorough worker.”
Saying this to a highly-trained, highly-experienced, over-worked colleague who has a strong reputation for well-received, on-time assignments and who rarely makes errors, could cause insult.
Saying that same comment to someone with a reputation for poor work habits, who has turned in inadequate assignments or who is new to the job may have a different impact and could be taken as sound constructive criticism. When to use criticism and how to phrase it, is the Art. Like a painter with a brush, a particular stroke can create or destroy a masterpiece.
The subject of criticism is intriguing as I look at our society and read so many critical letters, SMS complaints and negative commentary done anonymously or under pseudonyms. People are reluctant to openly criticize because our society is intolerant of criticism.
I’ve had people sit me down, look me in the eye and criticize me. It’s not pleasant to hear about your shortcomings and mistakes; who doesn’t prefer praise to criticism? But, I want to correct my mistakes; I want to improve myself; I want to grow.
I think leaders and people of goodwill at all levels should want this too. People should force themselves to listen to constructive criticism and not take it personally!
In leadership, being arrogant about the infallibility of your own method and ideas will push you off a steep cliff. You and your good programme could crash and burn because you didn’t listen to a colleague (or even a competitor) with a criticism.
Go into each situation after doing your homework and then know that you are not always right; but act with confidence in knowing that you are not always wrong either.
Don’t shoot the messenger! They don’t hate your Momma or think you are stupid just because colleagues tell you the ways in which your plan has flaws. Sometimes we hesitate to criticize for fear that it will hurt a relationship – and with good reason.
I listen as people blast someone for criticizing them and hold anger towards that person for a long time afterwards. Hear the criticism, decide if it works for you or not – then move on.
We seem to value ‘keeping quiet’ and ‘not talking too much’, particularly for women and younger people. This mind-set must change.
While we must make relevant constructive criticisms, we must also artfully use tact and our innate sense of fairness to choose the appropriate time, place and manner of making and receiving criticism.