Accepting criticism is hard. It affects you physically, emotionally and sends your mind into a tailspin. It does not matter whether it is done by email, in person or on the phone, being criticised sucks. It makes us defensive — either by outright telling the person they are wrong, or your mind just filters the information and sends it straight to the trash box. You just remember the highlights so you can recount the ridiculousness to your friends.
The internet is ablaze with the hip-hop rivalry between Drake and Pusha T, where each rapper has called the other out over personal and professional events in their lives. Rap rivalries or "beefs" are used as sparring grounds, where the top lyricist with the "hardest bars" emerges the victor.
In this beef, Pusha T has criticised Drake's levels of participation as a parent. We now wait for Drake to reveal his son to the world. This allows the rapper that takes an L ("loss") to go back and improve their style. This time, it looks like Pusha T has won and we will see if Drake learnt anything when his album comes out later this month.
This made me wonder, how can criticism make us better? Frankly, without criticism, we cannot improve — all people need to receive feedback to find out what is working and what needs to be stepped up.
Adam Grant is an organisational psychologist and a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which is one of the top business schools in the world. He recently started a podcast called Work Life with Adam Grant, where he explores ways to make work suck less. I recently listened to his talk on "How To Love Criticism".
Adam spoke to Ray Dalio, a billionaire and the founder of Bridgewater Associates, which is the most successful hedge fund in the world, with $160-billion assets under management. In 1982 Ray made a horrible mistake that saw him losing all his staff and borrowing $4,000 from his father to make ends meet for his family.
If your objective is to be as good as you can possibly be, then you are going to want criticism. You have to care about results than you do your image.
He said this was because he had become too arrogant, and when he was rebuilding his company he decided that brutal honesty would be its bedrock. At Bridgewater, they practise "radical transparency". Within their framework, anyone can openly criticise another colleague — including Ray himself. I think radical transparency sounds like constructive criticism on steroids.
According to Ray, one the formulas for life is Pain + Reflection = Progress. He says "mistakes are like puzzles", and the reward for solving the puzzle is a gem of knowledge. Dalio has compiled each of the gems into his book "Principles", based on his reflections after the mistakes he has made. If a billionaire who runs the most successful hedge fund in the world can find value in mistakes, there is no reason that we cannot do the same in our organisations.
A Support Network Vs A Challenge Network
In my previous article about trusting people you don't like, I spoke briefly about how workplace cultures promote cliques. Everyone wants to be in the squad and you get there by being the same — not by being different. When your boss is mean to you at work, you call your BFF, mom or work bestie who will sympathise with you and agree that "they are just out to get you".
Adam says that "A challenge network is a group of people you trust to push you to get better" — those people who will keep it real and tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. A challenge network will only be as effective to the extent that you are willing to listen. Ray Dalio says "If your objective is to be as good as you can possibly be, then you are going to want criticism. You have to care about results more than you do your image."
The Dos and Don'ts of Radical Transparency
Adam spoke to Kim Scott, an executive coach in Silicon Valley, and she said the following about radical transparency: You have to care personally about the person receiving the criticism and also challenge them directly.
Don't give the "Feedback Sandwich" — which starts off with praise or positive feedback, then moves to criticism or negative feedback and ends with more praise on a positive note. It's as bad an idea as a week-old tuna sarmie.
Given under the right circumstances, we can look at criticism as objective data that is telling us what we are like – whether it is good or bad.
Do make it clear that your desire is to help the person by giving the criticism.
Do it like Bridgewater, where the video or audio of almost every meeting is recorded. This eliminates rumours and the "he said/ she said" that is necessary to fan the flames of office politics. I remember that when I was working at a law firm, the associates would use their cellphones to record meetings with HR, just in case they needed to prove constructive dismissal.
Rap beefs, done right, can elevate a career — 50 Cent was able to move from being a mere rapper to becoming a suave businessman by applying the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Drake or Pusha T can definitely learn a few things from Ray Dalio and should consider reading his book.
Given under the right circumstances, we can look at criticism as objective data that is merely telling us what we are like — whether it is good or bad. Adam says when someone gives you feedback, they have already evaluated you and now they judge whether you are open or defensive. He adds that the best way to prove yourself is to improve yourself.