Saturday 2 February 2013

Criticus non carborundum (Do not let the critic grind you down!)

If there is one thing I have learnt in the corporate world is that fame is fickle. You have a great run and people “worship” you but trip a bit and there are many who will cast judgement and heap criticism that will make you wonder about how we work together as human beings in the work context.

To be honest, I am not naive enough to believe in a just and equitable work setting nor do I have anything against critics (they are a necessary evil!). In fact, I was polite enough to change the title from ‘illegitimi non carborundum’ (which is a mock-Latin aphorism) to ‘criticus non carborundum’ with the intent to avoid upsetting some of my readers (and current or potential critics who may read this blog!)

My choice of title was driven by the need to argue for a degree of mental toughness in how one manages the emotional see-saw (and at times sickness inducing) nature of criticism. There is a reason why I titled this blog the way I did. I realised that my commitment to the organisation and my engagement to it was always tested by how I reacted to the manner in which people in the organisation criticised my competence and at times even criticised me as a person (remember that critics can confuse the simple rule of play the ball, not the player).
How does one then stop criticism from becoming a judgement that can negatively impact capacity to function in the corporate world. “It’s easy to be positive when everything is going great. It’s quite another thing to be positive when things are going badly.”

I must point out that criticism can be fair or unfair but both have to be handled maturely. My assessment is that fair criticism can lead to withdrawal or self-doubt or have a negative impact on self-esteem whereas unfair criticism can lead to anger and a sense of betrayal. The ability to bounce back from both types of criticism is critical. As William Ernest Henley wrote in Invictus :: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Read this line again. Focus on it. You will realise that it is about realising that control is in your grasp.

The entire poem (see video above) is a remarkable piece of work and was a huge motivator to Nelson Mandela when he was incarcerated on Robben Island, South Africa (my recommendation would be to watch the movie Invictus in any case!).
Handling criticism requires one to “keep a cool head.” Focus on your anger. My own first natural reaction is to get hot under the collar and say something negative or start a debate. Stay away from that instinct. Stay cool. Falling into that trap is giving your critic the moral high-ground and doing disservice to your attempt to extricate yourself from the situation. Another trap is to keep calm but then start to debate or deflect the criticism. Trying to pass the “buck” or creating the perspective that you are blaming others is a human instinct that most critics expect. When you don’t react as per expectation you have already done something different in handling the situation.
The next thing I do is try to understand the critic’s perspective. The basis for most criticism is usually based on perspective or the critic's frame of reference or sense of betrayal at your inability to deliver. Look at the situation from the critic’s point of view to ensure that you are not reacting to it from your own jaundiced point of view.
Then move to the next stage of active listening. Knowing that you are listening to criticism is a powerful weapon and I have noticed that critics slow down or calm down (depending on the emotional electricity in the air!). Keep listening and keep stating/restating your understanding during the conversation. I typically listen carefully and walk away after acknowledging the criticism and its context but I then always put together a bulletised response in writing to the critic stating my position. Writing forces you to think and stay away from words that you will regret later. It also ensures that people realise that you are not intimidated by criticism to wilt away or hide!
Always ensure that you are being honest in your response. If there is a genuine need for introspection then acknowledge that. Position yourself as someone willing to learn from the criticism. If there is an iota of truth in the criticism then acknowledge the same. Even unfair criticism can be handled magnanimously. Also do yourself a favour. Do not bad mouth a critic to others. This is where office politics get in the way. Many people that you will attempt to confide in will repeat your assertions to others. Whether you are right or wrong invariably you will ruffle some feathers when your “confession” will go back to your critic. The higher the critic in the hierarchy, then higher the probability that the sycophant(s) in your organisation will leverage your misfortune. The good news is that the higher the critic in the hierarchy the more opportunity for you to undertake rational debate or discussion with the individual. One has to assume that you are not dealing with a narcissist or a sadist at that level!
One last bit of advice. Expect to react negatively to criticism. Expect to be confused. Expect to be emotional. Expect to feel like the proverbial sacrificial lamb. Expect to get angry. If you are thinking about this and expecting this then you will realise that you are better prepared to handle such situations. Remember the title :: “Do not let the critic grind you down!”


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