Human Nature and Criticism

As seems to happen every once in a while, several threads come together at the same time to create new learnings and insight.  This article explores criticism and feedback both at work and in any day to day interactions.

I’ve been working on a new ‘feedback process’ at work.  Many would be more familiar with the phrases ‘performance management’ or ‘performance review’.   And I suspect when you hear those phrases a broad range of experiences, thoughts and opinions arise.  Depending on your industry, the companies, managers and cultures you have been working in it seems there are a wide ranging set of experiences.   The approach I have been working on draws from experience, exposure and research, but also incorporates a great deal of what I have learnt around strengths focused support frameworks.  Reflecting on the psychology of what positive and supportive environments translate to in learning, thriving and performance.   The impacts that no feedback has, let alone negative.  What effective and direct communication looks like.  Generalising verse specific feedback and recognition.   I also explored and debated the role and use of peer/360 feedback for both the provider and the receiver.   And in this specifically, a significant corporate cultural element emerges – how we as a culture support each other.

But I realised that it goes beyond support;  because the intricacies of understanding and promoting a supportive environment goes to broader social systems and also goes right to the heart of ego.

I’ve been reading the new book by Dr. Gabor Maté titled ‘The Myth of Normal’.  It doesn’t relate to communication or feedback specifically but in his book he explores the ‘new norms’ of the modern world, and more predominantly the western world.  I’ll use different words and keep this short, but in essence he highlights the growing trend and normalisation of individualistic, powerful, tough and dominant (basically self-interested) persona.  And behind this we are slowly adopting and normalising the belief that everyone else is like that – it’s our default mode of thinking.  He also points out there are still many cultures that don’t run on these assumptions and instead model compassion, empathy, altruism and support.  It shapes our first contact with people.  It shapes our ongoing interactions, and more importantly, in the end it impacts our wellbeing both from a cognitive point of view but also in flow on lack of support networks as an example.  So we go out into the world everyday assuming the worst from everyone and often times we create that.  In many modern workplaces a culture of threat, competition, FOMO, and unhealthy criticism has us assuming others are hostile and we need to protect ourselves and our jobs.  Our ability to open to feedback, to trust others, recognise that we have evolved to collaborate and to help others.  That we can only be truly happy when we are able to contribute and be valued – when we belong.

Which leads me to the last thread; managing ourselves and our egos, and shifting to constructive and supportive thoughts and approaches.  I find I always seem to land back at this point in thoughts and reflections with people.   This elusive shift that I know I struggle with at times, and appears many of us do.  So let’s unpack it a bit.

There is ‘me’, and you have a story for yourself.  Hopefully it is made up of many valuable elements like knowledge and mastery of certain skills/fields.  And you have personal traits and values, some stronger or more important than others.   Values play into beliefs and shape thought, and what we see as right and wrong for example.   While there is a lot more going on, I find it is commonly how we perceive any and all influences on these areas of ourselves as the driving force in communication and specifically conflict, criticism and feedback.

How might we manage this?   Firstly I want to acknowledge that this isn’t easy.  Personally we are entering a zone that explores the story we built for ourselves.  It is risky; what if I am not the expert?  Or people should be listening to me because I am the expert, I don’t care what they think.  For many, the feeling of being in an environment that doesn’t seem to offer recognition of their value creates instant unease and defensiveness.

Philosophy offers a view in this great article on ‘The Marginalian’ (How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently).  And this is what brought it together for me.  In the end it comes down to us, our awareness and our intent.  I’ve long run with a core principle – ‘to think and act with the other persons best interest in mind’.   And while it is often tough, I can’t fault it.   And when I have the balance and space to be able to operate there, my relationships, my happiness and my health are all better.

In this article Dennett comes at it from a lens of providing criticism, however the same applies to any feedback at least.  All communication in my mind.

  • Understand, be interested in the other person’s situation, thoughts, feelings, needs and wants (many similar to your own)
  • Focus on common ground – this is a great place to build from, seeing others as people and not threats.
  • What can I learn – another great perspective that shifts us into a collaborative and shared responsibility mindset.

And I will add one more – Where am I in this right now – more than just finding common ground and learning from others, exploring how we show up and where our ego is currently sitting in the story.  Are we wanting to prove we are right regardless of facts because being wrong is painful?  Are we open to learn and explore alternatives, share the journey of growth and our part in it?

So as someone who may be receiving feedback or criticism, try and assume the best if you can.   Even the worst structured feedback probably has some learning in it.  And when we deliver feedback or criticism, check where it is coming from and if you have the other persons growth and wellbeing in mind.



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