A Jr. Executive I mentor called me a couple of weeks ago devastated because a senior executive in her company had criticized the way she managed her team, and she wanted to know what to do about it. That discussion prompted this blog. As usual, comments and thoughts are always welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe criticism and feedback are the twin key ingredients for a “breakfast of champions.” Without these two elements we can’t grow, mature, or realize our limitations and blind spots. I believe that to be true in business, and, even on a personal level, I actively pursue critics and value people who give me their unbiased and direct feedback.
But is every critic legitimate, and is all feedback something to react to? Well, my answer, after many years of experience, is most definitely not!
I used to wrongly believe that every critic who had a higher position of authority, or was older and with more years in an industry, or had more money, had to be listened to. That turned out to be one of the mistaken beliefs I eventually corrected. Over the years, because of my work at Ideasphere Partners I spent plenty of my time as a change agent or in turn-around situations. Doing that, I have been criticized, but thankfully not as much as I have been praised, by company founders, board members, investors, union representatives, front line workers, other executives, etc. Even though praise is good for the ego now, criticism is good for personal growth tomorrow, so I developed a good nose for critics, their legitimacy, and the need to actually do anything about their criticism and learned to separate legitimate critics and valuable feedback from the “blowhards with an opinion.”
So here is my approach for qualifying critics and determining what to do, if anything, about their feedback.
First, I believe ignorance is not a legitimate point of view, so I try to assess whether the critic is a “critical expert”, or simply an “expert at criticism.” It’s easy to confuse the two, especially since sometimes they go together, but a critical expert is someone who has a legitimate point of view from where they provide criticism, where an expert at criticism is one who provides criticism, even when they are totally ignorant about the subject.
The first step is to always listen with an open mind. As my favored poem, The Desiderata, says “listen to others; even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.” Then determine what kind of critic you are dealing with and if it’s worth doing something about it.
First look for evidence, independent of the critic, that he or she is, indeed, a critical expert. Some evidence is easy to find. For example, consider the track record of the critic. What does that record tell you? One time I had an executive, let’s call him Joe, criticize my management practices as being too “results oriented” who suggested I needed to be less specific and demanding with my expectations of the management team reporting to me. I was concerned that maybe I was too hard on the team, and while I accepted his feedback as a true statement, I had to consider if I wanted to adapt my style to be closer to his. But here is the catch; this particular executive had a 90% turnover in his direct reports over the course of five years. Of the half dozen department heads who reported to him only one had been in the job for more than three years and each of the other positions had at least two, and some of them three managers rotate through it. This executive was fun to hung out with and was a likeable guy, but did not set clear expectations for his managers who eventually failed, or got frustrated of not getting clear directions and left. Clearly the track record indicated I should discount the criticism significantly. On the other hand, every time Paul provided criticism – a mid-level manager who was considered the toughest boss to work for, but a builder of talent who had trained many managers who went on to become executives of the company, and was widely respected, I not only listened, I took notes and found ways to adopt based on his feedback.
But maybe the track record is not available, or not clear! Then, perhaps, check the critic’s beliefs? Does he hold more true, and fewer false, beliefs? One critic I dealt with at some point during a turn-around project was absolutely convinced that money was the only motivator for people, men made better factory managers than women, and that Six Sigma and Lean manufacturing were fads that would never work in his factory. Needless to say, when it came to his criticism of my plans to improve the factory, I took all his feedback with a very large grain of salt.
Some people are good at hiding their beliefs behind seemingly logical arguments. So it’s also important to know if the critic has enough domain knowledge that is demonstrable better than the average. I remember one time I worked with a team to build a financial model to predict the impact of currency fluctuation on their business. I have an average understanding of currency and so did the CPA who worked on the project with me, and we thought we had put together something really good. Then I run it by a partner of mine who has advanced degrees in finance. He proceeded to show us how nuances we had not even considered, let alone model, could impact our results significantly. His criticism was spot on, so we started making changes based on his feedback. I should note, however, that we need to be careful of the “advanced degree” trap. It’s not enough that someone has a degree. After all, some people have to, by default, graduate at the bottom of the class, so look for evidence of agreement by other experts in the field before accepting the feedback as legitimate.
And finally it may be a good idea to investigate what biases the critic has which may have an impact on their view. All of us, humans that is, are susceptible to biases, conscious or unconscious. Even critical experts are not immune to that. I remember working on a project I thought was very clear cut and I was delivering even better than promised. But there was this one member of the board who kept criticizing what I was doing. For the life of me I could not figure out why. This was a director who had a track record of success, knew the right things to do, was considered an excellent director, and had significant knowledge of the subject. His feedback and criticism was starting to get to me, and I was beginning to doubt my approach to the project, despite the results it was producing. And then, another board member pulled me aside and delivered this insight! I was using an approach the other director had tried at a previous company, and failed with – one of the very few times he failed at anything – so he believed that approach would never work, contrary to any evidence. From that moment on I paid attention to specific criticism about specific points on the project, and ignored the general criticism about the approach.
So back to the call from my young friend; after we went through my checklist we determined her critic was an expert at criticism rather than a critical expert. He was criticizing everything and nothing. No specific expert opinion was provided, nor did this critic have any demonstrable knowledge of the area he was criticizing. Based on his track record he had a bias against younger; especially female, managers, and her educational credentials and experience far outweighed his. So my advice was to just listen politely, look for any kernels of wisdom, but generally ignore him; Until he provided technical feedback on specific technical items. Then, because he was a great engineer, with a solid track record of design, well respected in the industry, and a bias for creative solutions, listen carefully and do something about it.