We often hear that it is a sign of emotional maturity and intellectual curiosity to be open to constructive criticism from others, and that negative feedback can help us identify important gaps between the person we are, and the person we want to be.
That said, nobody loves to be criticized. It would require a degree of intellectual masochism that is rarely found in people, with the exception of extraordinary achievers. Mega-successful people are not just hyperalert to criticism, but highly self-critical, to the point that their outstanding accomplishments can actually be explained as an attempt to self-medicate for their inner insecurities. What keeps people like Madonna, Serena Williams, Jeff Bezos, or Oprah going, but an exacerbated sense of perfectionism and dissatisfaction with everything they achieved already? Most people would stop and relax even after accomplishing a tiny fraction of what they have because they are not as self-critical.
The paradox, then, is that most of us prefer praises and compliments to criticism and negative feedback even though the latter holds the key to making us better and the former entices us to stay put. Why would you want to get better if you think you are doing great? Even professional feedback interventions fail to provide people with critical information to make them better, focusing instead on making them feel better. Consider the recent trend to remove negative feedback from performance reviews, or the robust scientific evidence for the fact that one third of feedback interventions make people worse rather than better.
Now some good news for you. Since you have chosen to read this, you have won half of the battle already. You are probably aware of the importance of being open to criticism, or at least curious about it. This is 50% of the challenge, as the biggest predictor of change is a willingness to change in the first place.
However, there’s still work to be done, not least because people are generally less interested in change. If we could just swallow a pill and be fluent in Japanese, great at playing the piano, or have proficient knowledge of history, it would be hard to stop us from doing that. In contrast, finding the motivation to invest the necessary hours to achieve these things is a lot harder. Few people want to change, everyone wants to have changed.
Criticism is a cornerstone of self-improvement because it has the ability to provide you with valuable feedback on your weaknesses. It hurts because it highlights the gap between the person we are and the one we want to be. Criticism equates to hearing what we need to rather than want to hear, and while not all criticism is well-intended, constructive criticism from those who know us well or have relevant expertise is the foundation of growth and change.
Unfortunately, our self-protective instincts often avoid criticism because it is much nicer to live in a fictional world where everyone loves us and nobody sees imperfections in us. Criticism can break this self-serving bubble but you need to have the courage, and vulnerability, to seek it and treasure it.
Here are four key ways to get there.
Find the right person
Ironically, as society becomes more prosocial and civilized it gets much harder to find people willing to criticize us. We value and reward politeness and kindness over radical transparency. For all the talk of authenticity, if you go about telling everyone what you really think, you will have no friends and your colleagues will hate you. So, it is not just courageous to seek, but also to give critical feedback. The right person then will be someone who has sufficient expertise in the area you care about (e.g., they know you well, and they also know about the skills or talents you want to develop), and is fearlessly prepared to tell you what you need to hear. If you think about the best feedback you ever received, it is not what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear.
Ask the right questions
Since it’s often unkind to criticize others, especially when you care about them, you need to make it easier for people to do it. This means asking the right questions. Don’t ask people whether they liked what you did or how you do something, and don’t ask questions such as “Was this okay?” or “Did I do a good job?”
- “What would you have done differently?”
- “What are the two things that they didn’t like so much?”
- “If you can change one thing about X going forward, what would that be?”
Tell them you won’t take it personally, and then don’t take it personally. Tell them you value their opinion and are struggling to find people who help you get better, so if they want to help you, they need to improve your ability to identify blind spots and key areas for improvement.
Then, be thankful. Feedback is always a gift, and there is no bigger gift than constructive critical feedback because it is daunting and risky to provide it. There is a higher cost to honest negative feedback than fake positive feedback, but the former makes you much better than the latter.
Commit to an action plan
If others are helping you get better with their critical feedback, you can pay them back by committing to change. This will involve them in the process and encourage them to provide you with more feedback in the future. It is particularly important if they are your colleagues and employees, for nothing is more frustrating than asking someone for their opinion only to ignore it. The best acknowledgment that you received valuable feedback is to act on it. Just think about it from a giver’s perspective. When someone asks you for help and you offer your honest views, even though you know it may hurt them, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing them make a positive change based on what they heard. Making others better is a wonderful achievement.
Seek feedback again
After you made an effort to build new habits and routines, you need to check if your efforts are paying off or not. Go back to those who gave you feedback and see if you’ve improved. In other words, the process goes like this:
- Get critical feedback
- Make an effort to change
- Get more feedback to monitor progress
It is no different from when you weigh yourself on a scale, decide to lose weight, exercise, or change your diet, and then go back on that scale again to monitor progress. And you don’t do it once or twice, but as often as possible.
The most talented people in the world are always a work in progress. They leverage critical feedback from others and don’t get defensive when they get it. They see negative feedback as a positive force for change, and never stop wanting to get better. If you live your life avoiding criticism and negative feedback, you will never grow or develop.