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.

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