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Stop Negative Criticism, and Become a Constructive Critic
We all have varying degrees of tolerance for being criticized, and for how much, when, where and why to associate with coworkers, bosses and friends. As the world economy sputters and missteps - leaving many "trapped" in their current work environment - it sure would be handy to have a quick guide to recognizing the various brands of unavoidable criticism, while being aware of how to be a better, more constructive critic of others.
Perhaps one of the ultimate quotes on the topic of courage is that from Teddy Roosevelt's famous speech:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
"Citizenship in a Republic,"
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
While people can find inspiration to live life in acts of bravery through this speech, we can pull something equally useful out of its very first line: "It's not the critic who counts..."
Roosevelt draws a sharp line between those who "know what they are talking about" because they are actually DOING something, as opposed to the world of mere "opinion." It's one of the topics we cover frequently because we are so bent on using science to be both entertaining and informative in helping people with personal growth, dating and relationships. Anyone, competent or incompetent, ill-intending or well-meaning, can have an opinion, but with actions that have been tried and tested before, collaborated on, refined, and found repeatedly useful, there are consequences of failure, rewards for innovation, and above all, benefits for all when our actions are good and right for the highest number of people's happiness and prosperity. And isn't that what science and technology do? They lead to reliable, beneficial ACTIONS.
Opinions are just opinions, often without consequences. So to a degree, mere spouting of opinions is cowardly - or rather, passiveness in general is.
It was test-pilot. Chuck Yeager who said, "It ain't braggin' if you can do the thing..." Which is to have a kind of healthy pride as opposed to arrogance, vanity, or veiled weakness of character. This is the spirit of Roosevelt's appeal.
Yet, why do we need critics? Why not be courageous in the way of Teddy Roosevelt, and proud in the way of Chuck Yeager? Perhaps critics have a role of restraint on individual ambitions which can turn selfish, and far more importantly, can educate, steer, and guarantee the sum total of all those actions do the best work for all society - as Herman Melville alludes to:
"I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
(moby dick chap 26 p112)"
— Herman Melville
The sharp distinction between the critic and action-taker, we could simply call a PERSONAL BOUNDARY - the dividing line where respect exists (the only real place it does.) The boundary is our protective shield and our tank with which to carry our psychological resources. It is our territory, and houses all those opinions and beliefs - which we can introduce to the world at large, but only by way of mutual respect for the boundaries of others. (And this is what is so difficult about today's trash TV with all the talking heads, and why it is so lacking in education...)
We cover boundaries extensively in the MindOS Mastery Program, as well as the Anxiety Map that details out the "anatomy of courage."
A second thing you see in the Roosevelt speech is that within action, there are decisions, and with decisions, there are good and bad results to be learned from. When we are willing participants in "the arena," we will undoubtedly make mistakes, but we can easily learn from them and refine our course, just as the nature of science refines its theories.
Hopefully, this then leads to more than just blind fearlessness of the type Melville is talking about. It leads to WISDOM, which is the second basis - after boundaries - of solid LEADERSHIP.
The Anatomy of Criticism
There are two ways to look at criticism that we can find immediately useful here: how it makes people think or grow, and how it makes them feel emotionally. In the end, their actions after the criticism come from both of these.
There's a useful concept in looking at boundaries, called "pathological narcissism." A concept often talked about by therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, it has to do with the relative selfishness (coming from the name of the Greek god, Narcissus, who gazed in a pond and fell in love with his own reflection), but also of immaturity of one's sense of boundaries, destructiveness of the decisions (a lack of wisdom), lack of respect for others, and an inner sense of "weakness" - the basis of "weakness of character." Think of narcissism and the poor boundaries that come with them as a bit like "being a child in an adult's body."
So if there is a boundary between the critical person and the one criticized, there are four possibilities in terms of the relative narcissism between them:
IMMATURE / MATURE
Let's take a look at these, because someone who is narcissistic will tend to be a "Destructive Critic" and someone who is not will tend to be a "Constructive Critic."
Furthermore, when we get into the idea that a second force in being criticized or being a critic is the emotions, we need to think about how self-esteem, emotions, value, and happiness itself work.
Is it possible to MAKE someone do what you want them to? To MAKE them see the world in your way? To be on your side? No, of course not.
But if there were something which would most encourage them to be aligned with you, to INFLUENCE them in an honest, team-oriented way, what would that be? (Besides the starting point of mutual respect which boundaries carry...)
It would be that they LIKE you. And you LIKE them. It's the best we can do in getting along with others.
In the KWML Mastery Course, we talk about the two rules in which we "like those who like us, and like those who are like us."
It's worth looking at these emotional effects called, "liking," because they are the precise thing that gets us to be VALUED in a workplace, VALUABLE in social circles, or LOVED by a woman.
Destructive and Constructive Criticism
What we mean by this distinction you have encountered many, many times in the workplace. It's part of how you know allies from enemies and a horrible boss from a true mentor. Destructive criticism comes from pathologic narcissism, and constructive criticism comes from healthy pride and solid character and leadership.
Think about all the things which go along with pathological narcissism and you'll find the features of a Destructive Critic:
- They are selfish
- They have poor boundaries, and invade your space, either bossing you around, or give you a hard time with passive-aggressiveness
- They are unwise, or otherwise make impulsive, or too-slow, poorly-timed decisions (which usually affect you adversely)
- They are weak, in that they themselves take even constructive criticism poorly - they easily "crumble"
- They are controlling, demanding, and essentially consider you a wastebasket for their negative emotion
- They don't teach you ANYTHING, and may even actively block your learning - even learning what it is that they really want from you
Destructive Criticism eventually brings down friendships, companies, and even whole communities or movements.
Now then, your dearest teachers, friends and mentors offer the benefits of a Constructive Critic:
- They are generous, but not foolish with their resources
- They are wise - both ethical and shrewd
- They have great boundaries, and are respectful of themselves, and of you, even when you are wrong or failing
- They are strong, and can withstand outside pressure from their personal life, pressure from your arguments at them, and outside pressure on your collaboration together
- They are leading, not controlling, and sometimes even serve YOU, as "servant leaders"
- They teach you all they know, without fear that you will overtake their knowledge, power, or position, but not to foolish degrees
Part of their teachings to us is to not suffer us as fools, but to be quick to forgive and forget when we are ready to learn a lesson and become real collaborators again. When they give punishment or consequences, it is to make us grow, not to dump their frustrations on us. I often cite that in the ancient language of Christ's time - Aramaic and derivatives and origin languages of it, the word for "sin" literally translates NOT as "you're bad" or "you're doomed" but "to MISS THE MARK." This implies that mistakes, even moral ones WILL happen for humans, but it's what one does NEXT that really matters - even when it comes to winning an happy afterlife.
Liking and Being Liked
If the rule from the KWML Mastery Program says that "we like those who like us, and we like those who like us," then consider this: if we do not control others, their opinions, feelings or actions, then what leads people who disagree to eventually agree?
They like each other.
So skills at being "liked" and learning to "like" are of the essence in dealing with arguments and criticism.
What is it to be liked or to like, then? It is one and the same as "valuing" and "being valued" or "being valuable" to another, and this rests in the ability to raise the person's self-esteem - which is that they make each other happy.
Some people, those with their heels dug in and for whom it is more important to be right than happy, cannot be encouraged to be happy. At least not right now. You will need to make an assessment of this, and decide how many resources you want to devote to trying, and for how long. It's reminiscent of trying to get a law passed in the US Congress.
Other people are easily prone to choose happiness, whether they realize that's simply what they want or not.
And still others - probably the majority - are somewhere in between. They can be convinced that harmony is possible, given enough time and honest effort.
Aristotle said, "It is easy to avoid criticism. Simply avoid saying anything, doing anything, or being anything."
Clearly, these aren't physically possible to accomplish, nor would we want to. And so criticism is physically impossible to avoid. But people do have a choice as far as declaring themselves, holding back in passiveness and inaction due to abusive, demeaning, or shaming experiences in their pasts. This is the dangerous thing which removes otherwise valuable people from contributing to the community, and equally importantly - verifying their role, value and leadership in that society.
So it's time to bring together the principles of "liking" and "being liked" along with the four combinations of Critic-and-Criticized, so that we can always be ready to pick apart our arguments in a sensible way...
Imagine that the pairings are - for practicality's sake - an employer and an employee, or perhaps a mother and child... which introduces the feature of a power-difference between the two - something that works independent of narcissism, "liking," and criticism. Regardless of power, and because of the unalienable rights and privacy of boundaries, we have a right to the maturity level we are at, our likes and dislikes, and the critical opinions we hold.
The boss or mother is in his position for a reason - she is a leader who parlayed her mature character into the rewards of work well done. But even that does not mean that she, or anyone, will ever control or even influence the behavior of another person, even a child. The employee or child is immature by comparison, and so has a more narrow worldview, and understanding of the circumstances surrounding their mutual criticism and disagreement.
In this case, the employer/mother has the power, but uses it wisely, and has a tendency to deliver mainly constructive criticism toward the employee or child. In return the employee will tend to grumble and gossip negatively about the boss, the child might complain to siblings about the mom, and probably miss out on some great learning, opportunity for mentorship if it's the workplace we are addressing, and the positive emotional experience of GROWTH.
Offering a raise or promotion will tend to lead to wasted funds and even more inefficiency. Giving a bigger allowance can encourage more waste or worse behavior. If the employee or child values being right more than being happy, they may take this gesture as a "bribe" that suggests evidence they are in fact "right" in their dug-in, stubborn position. The more powerful employer will have no choice but to subsequently fire the person, even after just having given a raise and/or promotion.
If the employer or mom goes with a more stringent approach such as "probation" or "being grounded" after offering mentorship and training, and being rejected either outwardly or through passive-aggressiveness by the employee or child, nothing will change, and again they will have to fire the employee or keep the child grounded indefinitely.
Just Add "Like"
The only chance for resolution is when the employer realizes that there are certain things that would make the employee happy emotionally, which according to such measures as the famous, Gallup 12 Survey, often do not involve money or raises, but praise, training, or support measures that lead staff to enjoy efficiently doing their jobs.
She needs to offer praise for what the employee does right, and an offer to add training and support to improve even more. To the child, she needs to offer praise and some of what the child wanted - a compromise. If accepted, it is because the employee is happier, or child is happier, and now values the mom more, or the boss more, the job, and themselves. If it doesn't lead to change, there may be nothing to do for now but give the employee the lessons that a termination offer for the future. Or to further restrict the child's privileges.
This scenario presents what I have referred to in the Complete Feminine Empowerment Program on career issues as, "The Child With a Gun Scenario." In this situation, a powerful person (like one with a gun) is also immature (like a child.)
One way of trying to solve the critical disagreement as the employee is to imagine what you would do to disarm a child with a gun. Would you distract the child? Threaten them? Beg or appeal to them to turn it over? Point out the danger or wrongfulness of wielding the gun? Whatever you feel you have had the most experience in so doing, and most effectiveness in doing, is the mindset to take on.
Just Add "Like"
It is likely true that you will want to get out of the situation like one would want to avoid living in a household or neighborhood where it is possible for children to get their hands on guns. It's unlikely that you, all by yourself, can rid a neighborhood of guns, or force children to grow up faster than the normal humans can.
You can't make your boss "grow up" or change the system which allows immature bosses rise to power - at least not overnight. Appeal to what you spot that can make them happy - some praise, some performance toward company goals, meanwhile planning your way out the door safely and securely.
If you didn't see yourself in the shoes of the employee in scenario 1 above, this time you will have to imagine what it's like to be immature no matter what - both employer and employee are relatively immature in comparison to peers and the population at large. Don't worry, this scenario doesn't necessarily make you a consistently "bad person." Everyone has challenges and bad days at work, and it's very likely that at some point or another, both you and your boss or employee will simultaneously be in a place where it seems more appealing to "be right" more than to "be happy" - where you will BOTH lodge destructive criticism at each other.
Remember, this is where there is no openness to new ideas, no learning or mentorship, and an emotional venting on each other that can be relieving in the moment, but stir up greater strife soon after.
The catch is that there is in fact a power differential. The boss wins by default - that is, if she sees the need to fire the employee before damage is done to the workplace in morale they both injure, financial damage, or destruction of property (by purposeful negligence.)
The first key here is to remember the value of Observing Ego - that prime, core skill of personal growth - in which a person stops to pay attention, take a time-out, and think things through before acting. If either person is willing to do this, they can lead the argument toward at least a stalemate. One or the other will have to be the first to choose happiness over "being right."
Just Add "Like"
If one or the other person can remember that our only chance to get a shift toward the constructive, they will at least take a time out from the argument, or inject some humor to deflate the seriousness of the situation. Humor has value in immediately making us more valuable in the eyes of others whom we may be very different from.
Another effect which can occur needs to rely on the social groups around us - the coworkers or other management may need to step in and offer structure and facts that steer both parties out of their emotional interchange, or else passively participate in the employee being "scapegoated." Most companies see periodic scapegoats arise in the ranks, and while destructive in the short term for both company and individual, scapegoats and scapegoating are a natural therapeutic salve for a stressful or toxic corporate environment.
Which doesn't make it right or wrong - it's painful for the individual employee and the allies of that employee - rather, it just is what it is: natural, and corrective. The employee will do well to protect their feelings and finances, reemerging somewhere else in a more mature state hopefully, and glad to be out of the immature or toxic workplace.
This is the best possible starting place for criticism, which will tend to be mutually constructive, fostering more productivity and enjoyment of the job on the part of the employee, and more training and mentoring toward leadership out of the ashes of mediocrity. On the part of the constructively critical boss who gives mentoring, the rewards are a more efficient workplace, harmony and friendship feelings among staff and management, and further progression upward in executive position for both, or success if the boss is already the CEO/Owner.
Just Add "Like"
In an already good situation, this added emotion to constructive criticism is positively contagious. It expands the company and the benefits to all involved - front line employee and CEO alike - by real change in the whole corporate culture. It's the equivalent of actually finding a way to not merely disarm a child, but to "eliminate guns from a whole neighborhood," so that any children who live there can "grow up" at a natural pace, and in harmony.
Having good boundaries in your mature leadership ability as a boss or employee - regardless of who holds the power - has a way of not just protecting you, but teaching boundaries to all those you bump up against critically.
This is also the only scenario in which the more powerful individual can actually learn and discover new growth needs of their own, from the less powerful than themselves.
She values the employee for real, not just in Office Space-style fake, "boss talk," but in a way that makes her feel like giving even more training, help, support, and encouragement than what is written in the policy manual. The employee values the boss for more than just a paycheck, or even for the training which will speed them on their way up the corporate ladder.
The employee values the boss because he genuinely likes him as a person, and in kind, the more powerful leader evolves into a "servant leader."
The cycle continues upward as the company thrives, and so do its members.
An openness on your part, regardless of your power - employee or employer, parent or child - understanding which of the four positions you are in as far as criticism: Mature/Immature, Immature/Mature, Immature/Immature, or Mature/Mature will help you chart a course through criticism, to happiness and success.
Just turn on your Observing Ego, respect boundaries, and try to like and be liked by others - then it's hard avoid being both right AND happy.