Sunday, May 11, 2014

Personal Pearl: Criticism hurts, but it can be a powerful motivation for change.

What kind of criticism upsets you the most? Being aware of the types of comments that hurt you the most can help you make positive changes in your behavior. I still remember how much it bothered me when a teacher said that a paper I wrote or an exam I took was “not up to my usual standards.” That teacher had an expectation of my performance. Knowing that I had fallen below that expectation made me want to do a better job the next time. “Not up to your usual standards” is a small and fairly gentle phrase, but it always got my attention.

Another criticism that really bothered me was being told that something I’ve done is “unprofessional.” I strive to be professional in all of my business interactions. To me, acting in a professional manner implies following a particular code of ethics, always trying to do a first-class job, collaborating with others and sharing the credit, continually improving my knowledge and skills, and so forth. Suggesting that I did not behave in a professional manner indicated that I dropped the ball in one of these categories. It embarrassed me and made me redouble my efforts to avoid being labeled “unprofessional” in the future.

Identifying your hot-button criticisms provides a kind of internal aversion therapy. Whenever someone accuses me of behaving in a fashion that I agree is undesirable, I immediately take action to head in the opposite direction. When I was a mere lad, a friend once chastised me by saying, “Don’t be so wishy-washy.” More than forty-five years later, I still try to be decisive and to stick to my convictions. No one has called me “wishy-washy” in a long time.

My wife learned early on that telling me, “Now you’re starting to sound like your father” is a highly effective way to induce me to alter my behavior. Not that my father was a bad guy, but that phrase generally means that I’m telling the same not-that-funny-the-first-time joke for the umpteenth time or otherwise reflecting one of his less attractive behaviors. As I get older, sometimes I’ll make a particular comment, or even just adopt some facial expression, and realize I’ve turned into my father. I try to not let that happen again.

If you’re a parent, a teacher, or a manager, it’s helpful to know what kind of comments most effectively influence the people you lead. I once supervised an individual who didn’t respond much to any constructive criticism, performance evaluation, or coaching suggestion. Roxanne was talented and capable, but her productivity needed significant improvement to meet expectations. My own manager and I tried a variety of strategies, to little avail. Roxanne would agree with our assessments of her performance, but these “attitude adjustment” sessions, as she termed them, had little impact. It seemed that Roxanne had no “handle” for us to grab to steer her in the desired direction, as neither any comments my manager and I made nor any actions we took seemed to motivate her to modify her behavior. Perhaps we just hadn’t identified the precise comments that would push the right buttons. Ultimately, Roxanne left the company, which was best for all concerned.

Think about the comments or criticisms you don’t want to hear from others; the ones that embarrass you the most or make you feel as though you have let yourself or others down. Then reflect on your typical patterns of behavior to see if any of them invite those very criticisms. If they do, consider how you can change your behavior to avoid hearing such comments again.

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