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Life Is Too Short for Criticism

Today’s topic: criticism. And, more importantly, motivation. I am often asked by clients how to motivate underperformers, whether they are employees, peers, or their own children. Having conversations about performance is challenging for a lot of people, especially for new managers who may not have experience with it. What it boils down to is: How do I get the best out of people?

First, I want to make a distinction between criticism and feedback. According to the Oxford dictionary as noted in the image above:

Criticism is: “The expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” 

Feedback is: “Information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.” 


The primary difference is that, with criticism, the intent is to express disapproval; to judge. When we give feedback, our intent is to help someone/something improve. We provide information — facts — not judgment. (To my way of thinking, “constructive criticism” is an oxymoron.)


The impact of these two types of response are very different. Think about how you feel when you are judged or criticized. Depending on the situation, I get defensive, lash out or completely shut down. None of these responses is very productive. On the other hand, good feedback can illuminate an issue I couldn't see, improve my understanding and performance, and even provide motivation. 


Now, I imagine you might be thinking that there is a time and place for criticism. How do you handle people who are doing the obviously wrong thing without criticism? Or, what about the times criticism has motivated you to become better? What about the criticism you are obligated to give as part of a performance review to justify why someone is not getting a raise? How do you deliver feedback without being critical? Let's set aside these questions for a different newsletter.


For today, what I want to explore is the impact criticism has on motivation, whether the criticism is directed at yourself or at someone/something else. Until I became a coach and went through training, I assumed that criticism was necessary for improvement and growth. I can see how criticism has motivated me in the sense that I didn't want to experience criticism again, so I tried really hard not to make the same mistakes.


But. Criticism also sticks in my brain and makes it difficult to learn new things for fear of making mistakes — and being criticized again. It can be crippling. As a coach, I was introduced to principles of positive psychology, one of which is that focusing on strengths promotes learning and growth. In other words, we ask, “What’s working?” instead of “What’s wrong?” 


Oof. I am well-schooled in asking "What's wrong?" Long, long ago in a previous life, I was a high school English teacher. A portion of my job was grading student papers, finding mistakes and pointing them out so they could be corrected. Then, when I moved into marketing and communications, I did a lot of proofreading. My job was to find mistakes and correct them. I got in trouble if I didn't. All of this is to say that I have a lot of practice at finding what's wrong. My default habit is to criticize.


The impact is damaging. Trying to avoid criticism can cause procrastination, create more anxiety and therefore mistakes, destroys trust in relationships and generally creates ill-will. It also can lead to perfectionism, overthinking and overworking.


Last week my inner critic was quite vocal. Behind the scenes here in Portland, I’ve been working on overhauling my website and migrating to a new platform. Let me tell you, this is a really uncomfortable process for me because:

1) I loathe technology (although I am trying to adopt a growth mindset); and 

2) Doing something new, especially something that will be visible to others, wakes up my inner critic. 


Sitting down to write was like getting myself to walk through cement. Every time I tried, it meant working through all the inner critic babble. It’s part of the process of creating. Imagining how other people will respond to what I’m writing is key to good writing. But in my imagination, all the “other people” are awfully critical, and having to contend with those voices takes a lot of time and energy. I believe this is a primary reason why people procrastinate. Having to think my way through an onslaught of criticism, imagined or real, is tiresome. 


While trying to summon the motivation to keep going, I had a thought: What if I banished criticism from my day? How would that impact my energy and motivation? So I challenged myself to 1) Acknowledge the criticism and how it felt; and then 2) Reframe it to find the strength. 


What I discovered was/is life changing. Seriously. I realized that being critical, whether I’m criticizing myself or someone/something else, makes me irritable, and leads to shutting down. It also makes everything take at least twice as long as it needs to because there is so much emotional baggage to sort through. I wind up arguing with myself in my own head. What a waste of precious time.


Well. Life is too short for all that criticism. It’s interfered with my relationships. It’s interfered with my productivity. It’s interfered with pretty much everything. While I have had plenty of practice focusing on what’s wrong, it’s not who I want to be. I wondered how the world might look if I focused on strengths, mine and others. Or asked, "What's going well here?"


And that is my strength: a willingness to be honest with myself and to learn to be different.


So, I’m learning to focus on what’s going well. And look, I’m done writing this. 


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