Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tackling the defenses

I'm curious: When you are the recipient of criticism, how do you handle it? (I almost called it "constructive criticism" but is it constructive if it doesn't encourage the recipient to change her behavior? Is it somehow constructive for the giver, even if not for the recipient?)

I've thought a lot about that un-stellar review--still rankling nearly two weeks on--and have come to a couple of important, even potentially constructive, realizations.

If I take the "opportunities for development" and honestly compare them to how I, deep down, feel about my own job performance, they have merit. I do have a combative attitue toward my boss. I do sometimes substitue my judgment for his. I do not get all giddy about new technology on a theoretical level: if I can't see the near-term value, I do back-burner it till it's needed.

Truthfully, as bad as it felt, it was not a bad review. It was a difficult review, but it was not a bad review. There were more positives than negatives. It's just that I'm not used to seeing those negatives at all. My boss felt compelled to provide criticism and it could not have been easy for him. Some of his reasons and reasoning may have seemed suspect or even silly to me, but he honestly felt that they were important points and, you know, he's the boss. If I were he, I would probably have expected more from me, too.

My defenses are oddly, unconsciously nimble. Without thought, I parry and deflect (and get murderously pissed off) instead of ingesting and appreciating and owning external criticism. Even when a part of me knows the criticism is justified and that I would like myself better if I found a way to accept it--maybe even actually change the undesirable behavior--I usually throw up my shield anyway and fight, fight, fight. Then I feel like a bad person, not just a person who has handled something badly. (And I haven't even talked about my unceasing, obsessive self-criticism and how that makes me even more raw and pissed off when I start getting it from outside as well, but that's perhaps a post for another day.)

I live in a world where there is very little criticism. I work in a highly privileged realm of wealthy, well-educated, competent people for whom politeness and consideration and a job well done are the norm. I am accustomed to meeting or exceeding expectations and being politely thanked for it. Minus the under-four set, my family members are generally in the same mould: considerate, supportive, non-confrontational. Occasionally, I wonder if that's part of the problem, if other people deal with criticism well because they specifically learned to deal with it as part of their daily lives. Do I need a foul-mouthed football coach to identify my weaknesses and berate me every day till I can handle criticism like a grownup--till I can actually take it constructively?

Suggestions welcome.


Blogger Jill said...

I recently had a friend offer his criticism/advice regarding my part in a play. It was really helpful, and I was fine hearing it.
But let my boss or prof offer criticism, and inside I am seething. I don't know if it is knowing my friend offered it in love, rather than trying to change me, that made a difference? Of if it is the power differential that makes a difference? Or maybe I respect his opinion? All I know is, who is offering the criticism affects me more than what they said.

So my suggestion is, take a look at your relationship with the person offering the criticism. I suspect that influences how you receive it.

5:59 AM  
Anonymous Jen said...

I'm terrible with criticism.

I think you're right about it being less expected once you've gotten to a certain point in your professional life. You are, after all, a professional, and your judgment and years of experience are what got you to this position--so if you were really ill-suited for the job, you wouldn't be there at all.

I must admit that when I've gotten criticism at job reviews, I've usually listened, thought about it, realized that I don't agree with it, but decide that if I want to keep my boss happy, I'll at least go through the motions of what they've asked me to do.

If it's any consolation, I think you're perfectly lovely, just the way you are. My only criticism is that you don't live closer to me! :)

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if you NEED someone to be a foul-mouthed football coach to make you take criticism well, but I've found that it helps. As a professor I take my research to conferences a few times a year, and it's SOP that it gets trashed by the audience every once in a while. It's the same when I submit papers for publication. And teaching evaluations from students can be brutal, because they know they're anonymous.

As a result criticism doesn't usually upset me much anymore. Sometimes it's helpful and sometimes it's not, but my self-image isn't tied up in always doing things right the first time, or even the 10th time. And I can improve faster if people tell me what I'm doing wrong. That said, the most helpful criticism is also sometimes the most challenging to address.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Boulder said...

I don't do well with criticism, even if it is constructive (in the short or long term). I came from a family that wasn't overly polite, but where politeness was expected of chidlren with regards to adults. But I was allowed to get away with murder at time with my own parents - it was hit & miss, is what I'm saying.

I think there are personality types that take in criticism and put a postivie spin on it no matter how bad the news is, who delivers it, or how it is delivered.

I think there are other people who put a wall up & don't want to hear any of it, and need time to injest what is really being communicated. These people need an adjustment period. One where a reconcilation can occur within, instead of a rant out loud.

I tend to do much better with warning of change, or if I'm included in the change making decision. Mostly because either of these allow me a chance to test how I really feel, how committed I am to the current method, why I'm so committed and then allow me to communicate my concerns and consideratioins I'd like the change makers to know about.

So I guess, as cyncial as I am, I do care enough to want my opinion to matter & my rationale to matter, and to get credit fo having the depth of mind to actually think through how change might impact my posiion's reponsilbilities.

As for plain old criticism on behavioral matters? Ugh. I simply fill with shame, and would rather not hear it the first time, alone in an office with my box marking a box.

I once worked in an office where I did my bosses critique while mine was being done. I think it caused both of us to focus on what truly mattered rather than the little things that can be so tit for tat. Also, after we got them we met back one week later to finalize them. The original assessment could be adjusted based upon a healthy discussion/debate or upon provision of a workable solution. I loved that I got a week to mull things over and explain myself, fix myself and uplift myself. I think my bos appreciated the same.

At the end of the day? Are these things that you'd like to change about yourself in your "rest of the day" life? Are they things that you feel shame when you hear, so you'd like to have them never mentioned again (meaning taking the criticism as truth and fixing yourself). Are they things that if you left this job and they repeated it would hurt your future at some other place of employment?

These are the kinds of things that you have to ask yourself in the assessment game. Sometimes you also simply need to realize that a bosses boss may not allow for a straight A report card. So many people approach these as, "Everyone needs work!"
You have to consider that, as well, since maybe your boss had to fill some portion of the assesssment with "needs to fix" items.

Don't beat yourself up. No assessment is worth it. Use it to figure out what drives you (in a positive way, or to distraction) and go from there. Embrace what you are willing to defend, let go of what is making your work life more troubling that it has to be. It is really al you can do.

That and ask about the chance of seeing a rough draft next period so that you can come prepared to discuss meaningfully the changes you want/need to make, or how fixes can be made to aver entire areas.

2:03 AM  

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