There’s Criticism, and Then There’s Bullshit Criticism


Good Criticism – no bullshit euphemisms

Here’s a wild thought – if you thought through how to deal with criticisms, you might handle it better. Modern social organisations are so complex and crowded that anyone must give and take criticism – good or ill intentions notwithstanding – on a daily basis. There are different types of criticisms and different kinds of people which give criticism. The latter affects the former, though it is not always determinative. But one has limited capacity to take criticism – there is a cognitive cost to feeling inadequate, and one must be aware of the danger of becoming deaf to all criticism.

Before identifying helpful and unhelpful persons, however, we might want to ask: what is the objective of such an exercise? Self-improvement and self-actualisation. Our purpose is to identify the kinds of people that will equip you with the necessary information to improve your performance.

The Helpful v Unhelpful Person
One way to sift the good criticism from the bad is to pay attention to the kind of person giving it. There are helpful people and unhelpful people. Helpful people are those acquaintances who focus on the job, and who care about the quality of their work and the work of their teammates/colleagues. Do not mistake these people for friendly people – they may be demanding and brusque, but that does not make them any less helpful. These are the sorts of people who may be difficult to get along with, but who give scathing, but constructive criticism (of course, helpful people can obviously be friendly – but that’s a bonus). Identifying the helpful person, however, is inextricably linked to the kind of advice that person gives. The helpful person gives helpful advice, the unhelpful person wants to drag you down (and uses vindictive barbs to do so).

Person-oriented v Problem-oriented Criticism
When something goes wrong, an organisation or team must inevitably grapple with the consequences. One way of grappling with it is to ask ‘what went wrong?’ as well as ‘how can this be avoided/rectified?’. Outside of structured discussions, where persons are often socially obligated to brainstorm for constructive points, there will be people who voluntarily take up the mantle of telling others what they think should be done/should have been done. Criticisms can be person-oriented or problem-oriented; if they are neither, then they are not “criticisms’ per se. Problem-oriented criticisms are very likely to be constructive if they focus on what can be changed, and if they (the person giving and the criticism itself) show a good understanding of the problem at hand. If they focus on what to do, given what has already been done and what can be changed, having regard to the resources at hand, then it is helpful criticism. A person who gives this often is likely to be helpful, and you should listen with an open mind.

But there is a fine line between giving helpful criticism, and being dogmatic about one’s criticism. Sometimes, a person may give good ideas about how to remedy a problem. It may even work. But if that person is not willing to engage in thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of such an idea, that that person is merely being dogmatic. That his criticism is helpful (if it is even that) is merely incidental. He wants to earn some ‘points’, show some contribution. The fact of the contribution is more important to him that the quality of the content. When dealing with these sorts of people, note down their contributions, but make your own decision, for such persons are very unlikely to consider your perspective.

Person-oriented criticism focuses on the failings of the people – they may be too lazy, or too stupid, or to careless... perhaps the company culture is bad or the bureaucracy of the other department stifles solutions... there are an innumerable number of reasons that could be presented as having caused an extant problem. These, however, tend to be unhelpful. Note that I am not saying that it is always unhelpful, just that these tend to be fall-back reasons without much substantiation and given by people trying to see you fail. Watch closely at persons who give these sorts of criticisms – are they generally unhelpful and hypocritical, or do they give substantiation? If so, pay their aspersions no heed. However, if they are generally helpful, and seem to know what they are doing, and substantiate their criticisms, then look within yourself – perhaps the problem does lie with you. The important thing is the substantiation, while the other characteristics do point to whether something is likely to be well-substantiated or not. After all, it is perfectly easy for an unhelpful person to give bogus substantiations to mislead you. Only if you are truly possessed of a discerning eye should you attempt to look for the good in what unhelpful people say. If you are like most, possessed with a normal cognitive capacity, then perhaps you would be better served ignoring unhelpful people. There’s far more to focus on improving even without them.

When receiving criticism, distancing yourself from your ego is a crucial first step; next, you have to listen, to really listen. Separate the words from the person. Do they present a constructive attempt at resolving the problem? This requires judgment. There is no a priori way to tell if criticism is legitimate or not. Sometimes, the fact that a criticism is wrong does not mean it is illegitimate, nor is it always evidence of the ill intentions of its originator. Sometimes, the criticisms illustrate a perception that people have, which you should correct in as clear a way as possible, without being too defensive. The key to giving criticism is substantiation – if it can be done so objectively and detachedly, there is little reason why it should not be accepted.

Preserve your cognitive capacity for the criticisms that really matter. Ignore useless platitudes and unhelpful attacks.

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