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Constructive Criticism: that’s definitely an oxymoron

by Rick Baker
On Oct 19, 2011
Most people would agree, it makes sense to have ‘thick skin’ so when people say and do things that are negative toward you those things do not cause injury.
Some people are bullies. Nobody trusts them. But, bullies can get to you if you let them. Bullies are, by nature, offensive and if your skin is too thin then bullies can offend you. So, from a young age, we are taught how to deal with bullies. We know the intent behind the actions of the bully: the intent is to offend. So, when our willpower holds firm we can cause the bullies to fail. There are many examples of how this process can work. Mahatma Gandhi illustrated it to the world during the first half of the 20th Century.
So, when we see intent to offend coming at us we label the ‘offender’ a bully and we call up our ‘defensive strategies’ to protect ourselves from offense and injury.
The question is, egos being what egos are – how skilled are we at differentiating between bullies and other folks who mean no offense?
There is no question: from time to time we misinterpret other people’s intentions. Attribution bias can confuse us. Our moods can influence us. All kinds of things can fog our judgment.
Here is a single example, everyone can relate to: interrupting a conversation.
Interrupting an ordinary ‘everyday’ conversation
When you are speaking and someone interrupts you, how do you feel and what do you do?
We see many different reactions…here’s a sampling:
  • Some people stop talking mid-sentence and allow the other person to replace their conversation
  • Some people keep talking, as if the interruption didn’t happen
  • Some people raise their voice in an effort to override the interrupter
  • Some people politely say something like, “Excuse me, may I finish my point.”
  • Some people less-politely and more-firmly say something like, “Hey, it’s not your turn to talk.”
  • Some people get very angry and say much worse things, using much-louder voices
Whether the interruption came from an intentional bully or from an excited friend or co-worker…it could be received as an incivility. When received as an incivility, the interruption will cause the offended person to become more timid or become more vexed…it depends on the person’s ‘nature’.
Now, all that can happen with everyday occurrences…like, an interruption of conversation.
Imagine how the interpersonal sensitivities become magnified when there is more at stake. Imagine how the situation changes when one person is The Boss and the other person…isn’t. The balance of power in conversation has shifted in favour of one person. [At least, most bosses would tell you that.] So, when conversations take place the game has changed:
  • What happens when the subordinate interrupts the boss?
  • What happens when the boss interrupts the subordinate?
  • What happens when the boss criticises the subordinate?
  • What happens when the subordinate criticises the boss?
Now, when it comes to incivilities and offending other people the example of interrupting a conversation is like a shaving off the tip of the iceberg.
The list of things that can offend people is lengthy…the ways to offend are almost limitless.
As examples*:
  • Talking loudly in common areas
  • Arriving late
  • Not introducing a newcomer
  • Failing to return a phone call
  • Showing little interest in another individual’s opinion
Without much thought…each of us could add a few dozen more examples to the list.
Whether we intend to offend others or not…often…they get offended.
Constructive Criticism…no question – that’s an oxymoron.
PS: To gain business advantage, we recommend self-monitoring and “The Master Rules
A link to more about The Master Rules.
Source of this list: ‘The Cost of Bad Behavior – How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It,’ Christine Persona & Christine Porath [2009]. From this book…
The Top Ten Things a Firm Should Do to Create a Civil Workplace
  1. Set Zero-Tolerance Expectations
  2. Look in the Mirror
  3. Weed Out Trouble Before it Enters Your Organization
  4. Tech Civility
  5. Train Employees and Managers How to Recognize and Respond to Signals
  6. Put Your Ear to the Ground and Listen Carefully
  7. When Incivility Occurs, Hammer It
  8. Take Complaints Seriously
  9. Don’t Make Excuses for Powerful Instigators
  10. Invest in Post-departure Interviews


Criticism: Constructive Criticism is an Oxymoron | Master Rules

Comments (12) -

rick baker
6/13/2012 8:36:35 PM #

"To hear something new is hard and painful for the ear; we hear the music of foreigners badly."

Friedrich Nietzsche
‘Beyond Good and Evil’, (1886)

rick baker
6/13/2012 9:32:24 PM #

"Talent is something, but tact is everything. It is not a sixth sense, but it is like the life of all the five. It is the open eye, the quick ear, the judging taste, the keen smell, and lively touch; it is the interpreter of all riddles, the surmounter of all difficulties, the remover of all obstacles."

Orison Swett Marden
‘Pushing to the Front’, (1911)

rick baker
6/13/2012 9:59:17 PM #

"Discrimination, the product of the analytical faculty of the mind, in contrast to criticism which is often ego-laced, can be developed by:

• Questioning
• Examining
• Analysing one's own ideas, opinions, and conduct"

James Allen
‘Above Life’s Turmoil’, (1910)

rick baker
11/25/2012 7:56:01 PM #

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

rick baker
2/3/2013 9:54:59 PM #

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."

Mark Twain

rick baker
5/26/2013 12:33:48 PM #

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”


rick baker
5/26/2013 12:35:35 PM #

"Other people's mistakes? Leave them to their makers."

Marcus Aurelius
'Meditations', (170's)

rick baker
6/23/2013 9:50:40 AM #

“The criticism of the world is bitter only to those who cannot compel room for their ideas. It is fear of this criticism that causes many ideas to fail to see the light of day.”

Charles F. Haanel
‘The Master Key’, (1917?)

rick baker
7/13/2013 9:52:34 PM #

"It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error, and another to put him in possession of the truth."

John Locke
British Philosopher (1632-1704)

rick baker
9/3/2013 9:28:35 PM #

Tips for Receiving Feedback

1. Don't be defensive
2. Listen carefully (actively, attentive to your body language)
3. Suspend judgement
4. Ask questions and ask for examples
5. Say "Thank You"

James Kouzes & Barry Posner
'The Leadership Challenge', (2012)

rick baker
9/29/2013 11:12:38 AM #

“I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among the men the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop what is best within a man is by appreciation and encouragement. There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of a man as criticisms from his superiors. I never criticize anyone. I believe in giving a man incentive to work. So I am anxious to praise but loathe to find fault. If I like anything, I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.”

Charles Schwab
As quoted by Dale Carnegie
‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, (1939 – Canadian printing)

rick baker
4/12/2014 12:35:30 PM #

"The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself."

George Bernard Shaw

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