Less Positive Feedback and more Criticism

First and foremost, I am NOT talking about someone being negative for the sake of being negative. Assuming you are not working in a toxic environment(that would be a different post), this kind of criticism should not be allowed at work.

The kind of criticism I am talking about is questioning the idea or decision, NOT the person. This is the kind that I do believe can be beneficial…if it wasn’t for the fact this also demotivates others for future work. The reason why it is demotivating, is that I believe we build a work environment where it is taboo. We are in a culture that value “know it all’s” and not “question it all’s” . That latter is seen an inferior and not confident in their own decision.

Yes, some people will always take it personally, but even more people take it personally because it is treated as being personal. The difficulty lies in the art of criticizing and idea and not it be perceived as an attack on the person.

What is Positive Feedback really?

Positive Feedback is a motivator. Plain and simple. It is recommended when someone is going in the right direction, and you want to help push them more. When someone is feeling down, you want to cheer them up. When something cooks something for the first time, you compliment them even if you hate it…just so you don’t discourage them from trying again. Positivity IS valuable….but not as much as people think.

When someone is headed in the wrong direction, giving them positive feedback will only accelerate that. If someone is heading in a direct, for anything, where it would be more beneficial to stop than to continue in the path…positive feedback is the wrong answer.

Okay, so what is criticism then?

Criticism in general is the “direction,” or feedback to help change course of the decision. Where positivity is the “push”, when you criticize you “pull”. If the person ultimately receives it well, they will be pulled in a different direction. If not, they are “pulled” to a grinding halt.

I think the thing most people don’t realize, criticism itself is ALWAYS beneficial. You do not have to agree with it…but you should have an answer to it. If you don’t have an answer, you need to put your money where your mouth is. Meaning, if it turns out they were right…you will need to be able to publicly acknowledge they where right and you were wrong.

How do I know if I take criticism well?

If you want to know how well you can take criticism, I would invite you to take the “Linus Torvalds” test. He has a tenancy to give brutal insults in public and technical discussions. He is rarely wrong, but he is also rarely kind. When you read his reactions, the question is how well would you react and what would your motivation level be afterwards? Yes he does make attacks personally, but there is always a technical reason behind it. He has never attacked someone because of their personality or need to show off.

If your initial reaction is that you could never work with like that, chances are you don’t take it well. You may even have a chance to respond with hostility which can be a problem. I have personally found that people who have a very strong and opposite reaction to his outbursts have an emotional defense mechanism built that can defy logic and long term good of a product. Keep in mind, he leads the Linux kernel. He can’t afford to be wrong(I couldn’t if I was in position). Unless you are able to describe fundamental technical problems with the kernel, good luck with convincing anyone he is the problem.

Now if there is some wiggle room or some scenario where you can work with him, there is hope. This can be work with others who can work with him, or even “test drive” working with him to see how you can handle it with your own personal ideas and goals. This notion of trying to work with someone who has a very short(but honest) temper means that while you may not like it, you do understand the value of criticism.

For me personally, I would find it incredibly fun. I would probably print out his first rant towards me in a plaque of some sort and have him sign it. The core of who I am is to not be “wrong”, not this “don’t blame me” that most others have. Working with someone like him, even with those rants, is someone I could count on to both talk to honestly and receive honest feedback. The goal would be to make sure the product itself is stable.

Feeling good is temporary, commits are forever

The one thing I truly believe most people misunderstand is that NOTHING good comes from being nice. I mean this in terms of the product. There never is a 1 to 1 correlation between being nice to someone and improved stability/features/etc on the product.

The way I see with entertaining someone’s “bad” idea just to not make them feel bad is like going out for drinks(if you don’t drink, just roll with it for a sec). Going out for drinks with friends always fun. It is always a good break from the day. I helps to just get out all the stress. But I have NEVER heard a single person base a long term life decision on their next time going out. Sure someone may go out to meet someone and “other things”, but no one goes out to say “I want to marry and start a family with the next drunk girl I meet”.

Linux in general is a great example, or think about the product you are most proud of. Describe why do you think the product is successful. Same for Linux. Did think about how any one particular developer was treated particularly well as the reason why? Probably not. Even with Linux, you may have thought about Linus Torvalds, but only how he is mean. Regardless, I doubt you think about a product as how nice the developers were.

The balance of Positive Feedback and Criticism

At the end of the day, there should be a balance. Just not what we typically see in business. Any team that is constantly smiling, is a team in constant denial. A team that is constantly negative and bitter, is a team that is in the trenches, planted, and ready for any attack.

Depending on the overall goal and mission of the team, you will need to think about which is more dominant. I am not saying “more” of, but which one when you need to take sides of being nice or complaining

Which is more important, quality of the result or longevity of the individuals?

Is your team 100% safe, and do you need just bodies to fill the task as hand? This can be the case for call centers. Then Positive Feedback should be more important. Meaning it is better to be nice, than complain.

If the product, mission, and/or overall goals of the team are more important than the individuals, then criticism is more important. I do believe this is the category most teams fall under. I believe most teams get this wrong. I am not saying “criticism everything, never compliment” , most likely everyone will quit. If you do have a team like that, you found that elusive unicorn…never let go.

When I say criticism is more important, what I am really saying is continue to give positive reinforcement. The change should be if ever someone says “This is the worst idea ever, and here is my logical explanation”, the team as a whole should focus and address the reasoning first. Only AFTER the issue is sorted out, address how the person came across. I have been on teams where how I scolded an employee was unacceptable where the customer complained about our performance. This does not scale.

How to allow for constructive criticism

The biggest factor to build an environment for criticism is to also make sure everyone knows it is never permanent. That it is not an attack on them, but just this particular idea. And the criticism allowed can come from everyone, including the manager.

When people make ideas and decisions, they need to understand it CAN be bad. They also need to understand that an idea or decision should be logical, not emotional. Proposing ideas should also come with an equal share of taking ownership. No idea should be considered “free”

If you are in a team that you feel needs this, but don’t know where to start. The two things to immediately focus on:

  • Sarcasm – This is the best way to loosen people up. Joke at the expense if yourself, then slowly joke at the expensive of others. Doing so will make it easier when you give real criticism.
  • Start criticizing others outside of the team openly. Doing this will show that when you criticize, it is never personal and that you are always looking out for the greater good

In the end, the biggest advice is to be completely consistent with your feed back. And keep it open for all to hear. Without the openness, people will always feel it is personal.

Will the real team leader please stand up?

Take a moment to think about your team at work. If you can summarize your team, what would it be? Not about how good or bad, but how does the team function? Same with individuals, how do you think they fit into the team dynamics? Who do you look to when it comes for help or direction? Do you even trust that person…?

It all depends on the leader

The “leader” usually means the manager. At times, this could also be the most senior on the team, and not the manager. This can happen when a leader is afraid of conflict: they may be new, their personality is to avoid conflict(where the most senior employee doesn’t), or a combination of the two. I have never been a manager, but I have been a “leader” many times.

And when I say “depends” on the leader, it really is all about how the leader runs the ship. As with any ship, a crew has their own way of doing things, say a “culture”. It is up the the leader to decide what will and will not be tolerated.

And the leader is the one who actually leads, and not dictates. Even if you are the manager and people do what you say, you may not be the leader. The leader is the one that everyone goes to for help

Employees are sort of like children

Yes, we are all adults. We are all capable and believe we know what is best. The reality is that this is not always(maybe never???) the case, at least not for everyone. Sometimes, the employees to need to be treated as children, and I am no exception to this rule.

Employees will always go in a natural direction if left unchecked. Sometimes they will avoid situations, such as trying not to be blamed. Sometimes they will head in a direction blindly, such as playing with a new shiny toy. Regardless, these directions may not be what the team actually needs. And just like children, if your employees are too quiet…they may be getting into trouble.

When it comes to managing and leading, think of it more as raising children, and not being a prison guard. If you are too strict, the most competent ones will leave first. Too lenient, the competent ones will leave first because they are pulling all the weight. You need a good balance of authority and freedom.

You are the driver in car…

Think of it like this, you are driving down a long straight highway. No one around, just the road straight ahead. You take your hands of the wheel. If your car is perfectly aligned and balance, it will continue on straight. Who needs Tesla’s full self driving with conditions like this???

Now imagine your car is NOT perfectly aligned. It really is a matter of time to where you need to put your hands on the wheel to correct the direction. If you are the type to laugh in the face of any mechanic talking about maintenance, chances are you are not letting go of the steering wheel.

…steer only when needed.

This is how the leader should run the team. Lead a team as if how much “steering” you would comfortably need. If you feel the need to keep your hand on the wheel, chances are you either don’t trust your team or you tend to micro manage. You are more of a hands off type of person, you risk running off the road…and usually when this happens it is too late.

In the end…

…managing a team is more of an art than science. There is no one size fits all. Managing a team takes effort that you will need to balance who you are naturally, some are more natural than others. What is worse than being a bad manager, is being the type of manager that you are not comfortable being.

Honesty is crucial however, no matter what type of manager you are. There needs to be honesty. One of the quickest ways to achieve this is to express honest frustration in something that your employees are dealing with, and “vent” on how you are going to fix it. Showing that you are more than a robot and have mind of your own will earn respect.

This next suggestion is from personal experience: Treat all complaints as serious until proven otherwise. Countless times I have escalated an issue to a manager, only to be told on what I can do next time. Assuming the fault or responsibility is to the employee raising the issue is a recipe for disaster. Trust me.

Finally, if are not enjoying managing…at least make sure your employees are enjoying their job more than yours. Until you can find a way out.

Warning about Warnings

Warnings are everywhere. Warning signs on road. Warning labels nearly everywhere(Thanks California!). Family and friends warn you about decisions you are going to make, your computer’s battery is low, your check engine light is on…and there is chance that you have ignored all of them.

We are adults, we know better. We got to where we are by knowing which warnings to listen to and which ones not to. My guess? Being a teenager ruined it for us. A sea of warnings, and just like the ocean water, never able to consume it.

Warnings in logs and monitoring

Coming back to reality, let’s talk about warnings in monitoring and log messages in general. Think about all the warnings you see in your day to day job. Do you pay attention to the? For me, I generally ignore them. They all become noise. I am pretty busy with many different things, and investigating warnings that no one else seems to care about can be a waste of my time.

The reasons I generally hear are “We will know before it becomes a problem” or “We will investigate when we have time” . In the end, this is never the case. Even worse, when something fails and there was a warning, the question can be “Why didn’t you look into it?”

What warnings really mean…

When I think about how warnings have been used, the reality is that it is for “other people”. I am not talking about everyone but me, but that everyone views warnings as everyone else’s problem responsibility. When I warn others, I am making the problem bigger than it really is. After coming true, sometimes I hear “everyone was busy.” Or even worse, that email I sent out to everyone warning them and no one acknowledged? I should have put it in the proper ticketing system.

Same thing can happen with reports. Let’s say if you are a consultant listing out security concerns in an environment. If the client is looking to become PCI Compliant, then your report is more of an actual “error”. They will view everything you put down as needing to be done. If there are no real businesses need yet, this report is a “warning”. They will look at each and every item, balance it with the financial and resources, and decide based on their gut on what should be done. The end result is a shadow of the original recommendation

Warnings should never be used for blame

Never use warnings as a way to blame someone. Never. Ever. You don’t listen to warnings, and I don’t listen to warnings. Expecting someone else to pay attention to a warning log message or a warning alert that also has a critical alert is a bad idea. It is only asking for trouble. de-motivation, and people to start focusing on all the wrong problems.

I am not saying completely ignoring the warnings(I will go into that in the next section), but you do have to understand that no one pays attention to it, even if they should. Your check engine light, chances are you have one on. And you are not caring about it because either you know what it is, or your car still runs fine. I have even heard the phrase “I will worry about it when it turns off.

Let’s use a simple and typical monitoring alert we all can relate to. Let’s say we have warning(does NOT alert) at 75% used, and critical(pages the oncall) at 90%. Warning was happening through out the day, no one looked into it. Critical alert paged the oncall in the evening. Let’s say he did not respond in time and brought down the critical application on this server.

I have heard plenty of bad reasons in this situation. Create alerts for Warnings, lower the critical so we have more time to respond, everyone during the day needs to “do better” at paying attention to warnings.

The same goes for log message. I have seen a warning(and specifically not an error/fatal) message show up. After experience a bug with the application, we go to the logs and see this warning that was pointing to the issue that no one noticed. Once again, the discussion goes to “how do we pay attention to this in the future”

Warnings should tell a story

Warnings do have their place, but not in the way we currently use it. When something finally breaks, warnings should only be used to tell how it broke. What are the things that were missed. Warnings are a story and should be treated as such.

In both examples above, RCA about warnings should be more processes and long term solutions:

  • What made someone/everyone decide on the warning level?
  • What are others working on to where it was missed?
  • Is it or others adding or hurting the overall noise?
  • Is there ANY other way to make a warning more meaningful?

Only when missing warnings is viewed as a side effect of something else, would it actually be beneficial. Never address warnings directly.