By Tony Samson
THE POSSIBILITY of bad reviews is ever present for theater performances, movies, books, political moves, and even hosting of international events. Even out-of-town corporate retreats can be panned — no alfalfa sprouts for lunch.
Companies in the service sector use customer complaints, often negative and even pugnacious, as a management tool for understanding their market. Anyone who takes the time to write a nasty letter must feel strongly about some lapse of service that needs attention — there was a long line for returns.
Letters to the editor pointing out errors of fact or arguing an issue with an opinion writer or reporter help in checking bias and sloppy research, even when these are unintentional. True, there are perennial letter writers (or netizens) who see themselves as potential columnists, sometimes not even bothering to refute anything that came out but simply spouting off unsolicited opinions.
It is standard for coaches to review the tapes of losing games (though not if they’re blowouts), maybe even filing away the text messages of the benefactor. (Were you asleep when we fell behind by 20 points?) Somehow, post-mortems on defeats can be instructive, if there aren’t too many — as in all the games. (When do you get to apply the lessons, Coach?)
Few people take criticism well, when given even by friends and well-intentioned allies in public. The reaction can be vitriolic — her mouth must need the exercise.
Resistance to negative feedback can result in loutish behavior. The petulant subject of criticism feels badly served by supposed supporters who seem to have turned into bashers.
And yet feedback that is too consistently positive or even fawning does not serve the boss well at all. He already expects to be adored by those he hired or promoted. Contrary behavior just results in being dropped from the inner circle and consigned to purgatory where one is trapped and out of the loop.
Criticism however is part of corporate culture. It is enshrined in the process of evaluation required for salary increases, promotions, and even whether the subject is still worth keeping.
A performance rating session for the corporate executive can be as stressful as a visit to the dermatologist to remove warts. The fists clench tightly on the arms of the chair as someone in authority cauterizes the nasty warts. In the case of the corporate skin specialist, no topical anesthesia is applied. (Okay, this will really hurt.)
Still, being given feedback by a critic on one’s failures and shortcomings is intended to be an opportunity to improve. The problem lies in the diagnosis. (Is the disease curable?) Often, the examiner and examinee disagree. The rating session can only be fair if there is symmetry. The ratee must also be given a chance to rate his boss — “Sir, your directions are always vague. You are so indecisive. I don’t know if you really understand what you’re doing. You don’t seem to get anything done.”
This new type of dialogue is known as the 360 method, referring to the degrees of a circle where the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (Hamlet) come from all sides. Ratees also become melancholy and plagued with doubts, afterwards, and aching for a drink — to beer, or not to beer.
Sometimes, criticisms are prefaced with some formula for avoiding antagonism — “this will hurt me more than it will hurt you.” (Yeah, right.) The pummelling of the subject purportedly out of goodwill and concern is called “constructive criticism.” This phrase may well be an oxymoron or a self-contradicting expression, like “silent scream” or “working vacation.”
Still, feedback, rather than constructive criticism, can be neutral. It comes as a suggestion, or even a case study (there’s this manager I know) just to deflect the personal aspect of the evaluation.
Parenting experts avoid outright criticism and prefer encouragement which requires celebrating even the tiniest achievement — hey, congratulations for getting to the toilet in time. (Just a few drops in your pants this time.)
There is the inner child in us that craves for nurturing and approval. But isn’t constructive criticism too an expression of a conviction that one can do better? Even afterwards, when parties have parted, there can be a faint tinge of nostalgia when one misses the voice that was always so persistent… but a little too shrill.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.