Love Your Critics

Nobody likes being criticized. This is one of the least productive of human traits, because few things are more effective than good criticism when it comes to changing our results or our ways.

If you went to schools that gave out report cards, you’ll remember how few critical words it took from a teacher to alarm your parents. “Not focused in class” or “Tends to talk out of turn” were enough to get mom and dad engaged in a hurry.

As adults, most of us get criticism from only a small handful of people: family, bosses, and spouses. Friends could be a great source of criticism, but the implicit contract that humans call friendship rules out finding each other at fault. If we do, we’re probably in a state of some stronger emotion.

If our bosses are giving us good evaluations, they include a few grains of criticism along with the praise. We toast the praise with our friends at the bar afterward, but it’s the grains of criticism that stick with us, because it’s now official that another human being finds us wanting in some way.

And if we don’t like criticism, we positively hate being not good enough for someone who matters to us.

Which brings me to one of the few realms of public life where criticism is not just expected, but required: reviewing and revising the work of others. Every successful agency or client relationship I know includes remarkably effective giving and taking of criticism, especially internally.

At Emotive Brand, we’re harder on each other than any client could be, because we know the clients will come and go but tomorrow we’ll still be squaring off with each other about the best way to solve that day’s challenge. We throw our punches precisely and thoughtfully, but we don’t pull them.

This appears to be true also of companies that change their industry or the world. Someone in a leadership role is unafraid to criticize the work of others in a direct yet effective way, and that has two paradoxical results: The work gets better, and the people doing the work respect and follow the critical leader even more passionately.

In other words, criticism can make us better at what we do, and bring out passion for our work that we didn’t know we had. We just need to approach criticism with the right understanding: The basis is that we matter to each other, and the point is to improve each other.

So next time you’ve giving or getting criticism in business, stop for a second and remember what’s really going on. It’s only partly about the work itself. The rest is about us. If we make each other better, the work will inevitably reflect it.

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