Being criticized is an privilege

One of the most important life lessons you need to learn, is to how to give and receive feedback. Specially when the feedback is not positive, and it is criticizing something you’ve said or done.

My view is that a very effective way to learn (and adjust behavior) is to create environments where your friends and colleges are conformable in criticizing your actions (i.e. to provide their views on how you behave and act). This is not easy, and is something that I work hard at it, specially since my high-level of energy can very easily create blind spots in my understanding of the real impact of my actions (see Why do others think that I’m “hard to deal with” and that “I don’t listen”).

If you are lucky enough to be in a position where you are criticized, you should see that as a privilege and an asset that you have.

But listening to somebody (and their criticisms) doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what they say and do what they tell you to do :)

What it means is that you understand their point of view. Also important is that you let them know that you’ve acknowledged their feedback and will consider their ideas.

Here are three models I use for the cases when I don’t agree with somebody:

Usually, disagreeing and committing is a much better outcome, since that makes sure that all parties are aligned in the right objective or idea.

Agreeing to Disagree is a close 2nd since that means that you were able to reach a consensus that both don’t have the same view on a particular idea/subject/behaviors.

Sometimes, specially in the social media world (or Open Source world) there are tons of people with lots of ‘half-baked ideas and criticisms’, where the only rational and effective solution is to ignore them (or block them)

Note: always ignore and block trolls and other online personas who are completely irrational, and only bring negativity to the table. They are not worth it, and you will learn nothing from them.

Learn who is your public persona

Part of the exercise is to tune in your understanding of reality, with what is really going on.

You need to build trust relationships with your community, where your friends and colleagues (both up and down the org chart) are comfortable in telling you what they really think about you and how you behave.

I really like the concept that “if you want to go fast you can go alone”, but “if you want to go far (and have sustainability), you need to work with a team”.

Nobody creates anything that is valuable by itself. It is always a team effort, and you need to learn how to be an effective team player (regardless of what position you are playing at that moment in time)

One of the key concepts that I have in my mind is the fact you can’t control how somebody will react to your actions. So don’t fight it and use those reactions in your feedback loop, and become a better person, professional and manager.

Myers–Briggs and 16 personalities

Does this means that you need to react differently to different people?

Yes! Absolutely.

A feedback from person A could set a number of alert bells in your head (as in ‘… Hummm… I might be going on the wrong direction …’), but the exact same feedback from person B could give you a confirmation that you are indeed going on the right direction :)

The way to do this is to reverse-engineer how somebody behaves and think, and apply that filter to what they say. The fact is that people are different and they will react differently to the same situation.

Myers–Briggs Type Indicator is a really good framework to understand this where most people can be split into 8 learning styles:

  • Extraversion vs Introversion
  • Sensing vs Intuition
  • Thinking vs Feeling
  • Judging vs Perceiving
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Another related framework is the _Big Five Personality Traits which maps five factors:

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
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To see both of these frameworks in action see the 16personalities.com website who have merged these two frameworks and come up with with 16 different personalities:

For reference here is mine :)

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Note that although these frameworks might not be 100% accurate, I found the results I’ve seen to be quite exact in practice.

Learn about how the mind works

One topic that has really help me to grow and understand better how to work in teams is the amazing Neuroscience and Behavioural research that has been published recently in books like:

Importance of diversity and balance in teams

One of the key reasons why a diverse team is so important, is because having teams made of individuals of primarily one type, will invariably create blind spots, promote GroupThink and lead to bad decisions. This is a point that Jane raises in her InSecurity: Why a Failure to Attract and Retain Women in Cybersecurity is Making Us All Less Safe book (i.e. having cyber risk decisions being made by a predominately male population does not usually result in the best possible outcome)

Being aware of the team members personalities is a great way to ensure that the right mix or the right balance exists.

Radical Candour

As a framework to think about feedback I really like the ideas presented in the Radical Candor book, which provide a mental model based on two main axis of behavior: Care Personally and Challenge directly:

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  • When you Care Personally, but Don’t Challenge directly: you have Ruinous Empathy (meaning that real feedback is not provided until it is usually too late)
  • When you Don’t Care Personally and Don’t Challenge directly: you have Manipulative Insincerity (which is really something you don’t want to be involved in)
  • When you Don’t Care Personally but Challenge directly: you have Obnoxious Aggression (which is not a good way to communicate and is bound to make the recipient very reactive and even aggressive)
  • When you Care Personally and Challenge directly: you have Radical Candor (which is the sweet spot, when the message has the maximum opportunity of being listened to)

Note that this is not easy at all to put in practice, Radical Candor does required a lot of work and effort from both parties. For example, we usually start by saying ‘Ok I want to give you some Radical Candor…’ which is usually a good way to kickstart the conversation and prime all parties for what is going to happen next.

It is not easy to give feedback

Although for some personality types it seems that all they can do is to give feedback (which can also be a defence mechanism to cover up for insecurity), the best feedback you can receive is one that is hard to give. You need to be very humble when receiving feedback and appreciate that it is very hard for the other person to do it (since they are going ‘on the record’, and in most cases it is easier to not say anything)

Remember that if somebody has something to say to you, but is afraid to say it, or thinks that it wont matter because you will not listen, the real loser in this lack of communication is you (not them).

The worse situation you can be in, is being ignored and not knowing what is really going on. You want to make sure that your colleagues are conformable saying to your face, what they say (or think) behind your back.

Learn to like criticism and use it to measure success

The way I try to cope with criticism and comments, is to view them as positive things and even try to enjoy them (which is not easy at all to do, and it does require a lot of practice and soul searching)

A good mental model is to accept that you will always be criticized, and there will always somebody/somewhere that doesn’t like what you have just done, or doesn’t understand your point of view. With this in mind, what you need to do is to use the ‘what’ is being criticized as the benchmark of your progress.

Basically you should measure your evolution by what you are being criticized for. Learn to recognize what are side effects of your current path, and use that feedback to confirm your current trajectory.

Always focus on the ideas

Here is an amazing quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”.

Always focus on the Idea, and don’t worry about how that was said (the Event) and who said it (The People)

Music and criticism

One of my first big lessons in the power of listening to the right people for what they say, was when I was playing drums professionally and I realized that the best feedback (and criticism) that we received, was not from other musicians (who could be very objective in what was wrong), but it was from audience members (and long standing fans) who really cared about the band and the music.

I was quite curious on why this happened. Why didn’t the most qualified individuals to provide feedback (the musicians or music critics), were the ones that really deserved to be listened to? (in fact some of their comments would fall on the ‘ignore’ bucket).

Here are some thoughts:

  • most musicians are not very good teachers and don’t know how to give effective feedback (they usually to much focus on technical aspect of the playing)
  • they are not the target audience
  • (some) could have conflict of interests (and not really be interested in your success or improvement)

Note that this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t value in those musicians comments, it was just that they needed to be heavily filtered.

On the other hand, the criticisms from the audience, would be much more raw and consumable (if you talk to them and get them to give you real feedback).

Related to this is the fact that what I don’t really like is praise and compliments, since after the nth variation of ‘you looked/sounded great’, you don’t really learn a lot (and most people will default to vanilla compliments).

Finally the positive feedback that is really, really, really valuable is the feedback from the people that you respect the most (which are usually the ones that give you radical candor).

THAT is usually all that you should be looking for.

THAT moment when one of your heroes (or individuals you really respect) gives you a gentle nod of ‘well done , that was good!’.

In your life, you will be on the receiving end of many magic moments like this. Unfortunately most miss it and fail to appreciate them. Make sure you celebrate them as they occur, since nothing else matters (money, success, fame).

In life, always celebrate and enjoy the journey (and don’t forget to do the happy dance on your milestones and successes).

Because the moment you reach your destination, is the moment you start to look for the next challenge (with a new set of expectations)

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This post is released under an Creative Commons license, and is based on the ‘Being criticized is an privilege’ chapter from the Generation Z Developer book I’m currently writing.

Get it for free from Leanpub and get updates when new versions are released.

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