Critical Friends

My word, it’s tough being an itinerant chronicler of the peccadilloes of the business world. I had a blog all prepared ready to be uploaded this morning and, as is my custom, gave it to my wife to get her opinion.  I’ll spare you the painful discussion, but she didn’t like it.  

I’m always at pains to distinguish myself from glossy self-help authors, so I’ll spare you the cloying description of the mutual respect we have in our marriage which led me to bin my latest meisterwerk without a protest (but just wait till the next time she goes out without locking the back door).  Nevertheless, it was a sobering reminder that if you ask someone’s opinion, you’d better make sure you’re prepared to act on the consequences.

Inviting criticism is not for the faint hearted. Indeed, the last time I asked a client for feedback, he told me he was surprised I’d never had my crooked teeth fixed.  (Hmmm, I’m starting to see a pattern here – maybe I just have the kind of face that invites hostility).  Very few of us ask directly for feedback with genuine openness.  This may be because we have such a powerful critic sitting in our own head we’d rather no one else joined forces with them. 

So it is that you are more likely to hear people lead off defensively with: “I made a real mess of that, didn’t I?” to which only the brave or foolhardy reply “Yes, actually, you did.”  The rest of us make do with “No, no, it was great, honestly”.  We call this being compassionate.  But we delude ourselves. It is not true compassion that leads to the avoidance of direct feedback, but an inability to cope with seeing someone else getting upset.  This is why so many managers use devious means to trap an appraisee into confessing their misdeeds rather than just telling them.  A favourite trick is to pretend to ask open questions, like you were taught on the Conducting Effective Reviews course:

MANAGER: So, how did you feel your work on the project went?

EMPLOYEE:  Oh, great, it went really well.

MANAGER: Oh.  (pause) So you didn’t have any problems then?


MANAGER: Oh.  So you don’t feel that, for example, time management might have been a slight problem?

EMPLOYEE: Not that I’m aware of.

MANAGER: (cursing under breath) So, you were completely happy with the slippage in the schedule…?

And so on.  The end result will be the employee doesn’t hear the message, but everyone else will, because the manager will make sure they know how that idiot can’t run a project to time, ruining the employee’s career prospects while denying him or her the self-knowledge that could lead to the issue being addressed.  That is what we call ‘compassion’.  An alternative definition of compassion is ‘doing what’s best for this person in the long term’, which might mean upsetting them in the short term.  (That’s my excuse anyway.)

My dictionary defines ‘criticism’ as ‘a rigorously discriminating judgment or observation’.  I’m sure you can think of several colleagues who could do with being on the receiving end of one of those.  But because both givers and receivers of feedback confuse rigour with aggression (and take ‘discrimination’ automatically as a pejorative term) such direct clarity gets outlawed. 

Take the process of generating ideas.  It’s de rigeur for consultants like me to enforce a ‘no criticism’ rule in such meetings.  And often with good reason.  Just as every baby is beautiful to its own mother, so every idea is amazing to the person who created it.  But what happens when you need to tell someone that, in effect, their baby is ugly? 

Pretty well every creative partnership I have worked in involved complete freedom to criticise and reject each other’s ideas.  In all cases the person on the receiving end didn’t complain.  What made the difference?  In a word, trust.  I trust that my colleague is working in the best interests of a successful outcome without pursuing a personal agenda.  Interestingly, a large survey into the factors that make innovation work in organisations pointed to ‘a climate of trust’ as the single most important factor.

The rarity with which the average individual asks a colleague to criticise their work is part of the same issue of trust.  When I ask someone for feedback, I spread my dreams under their feet – how can I complain if they tread on them as a result?  After all, you can’t make wine without trampling on perfectly good grapes.  Speaking of which, it’s Friday evening and with a bit of luck my wife will come home and ask for my opinion on something.  I’ve been building up to this; if you’ll excuse me….

Author: Phil Lowe
has been a coach and facilitator for 28 years. With work in psychology and the arts (trained as an actor, and have worked as a writer most of his adult life, most recently as a screenwriter). Member of the English Justice System, working with judges to decide the outcome of employment cases.  


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