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Some thoughts about counterproductive criticism

Probably I am not the only one who experiences a growing level of negative, and mostly unjustified, criticism, which might give the impression of arrogance when it comes to professional relationships. The reason why I call it ‘unjustified’ immediately is that when reading behind the lines, the easily recognizable motivation is to make certain things even more relative than normally are. (Although, a whole publication might not be enough to analyse the meaning of “normally”…) Making more relative in order to show power, to come across as superior or simply gain some discount in price, etc., but – almost surely – not to be trustful or encouraging ….

The content and role of criticism

What makes me concerned nowadays, is the impression that lack of sharp criticism in certain relationships is considered to be unhealthy. Feels like it is facilitated. Like an essential part or a sort of a necessity.

I was socialized not just to live with critics but be thankful for them as they provide the opportunity to develop and grow further. This made me a kind of maximalist in my earlier life, trying to keep up with everyone and everything, to be and stay on the top whenever possible. A very tiring, and sometimes distortive attitude though… But even with these basics, the level of constant criticism, and more the questionable content, made me think. And worry. And a bit reluctant… Do we really understand the role of criticism correctly???

It might be the international exposure, the need to socialize with people with very different background, or the aging, or who knows what, which triggered a conclusion in me: something is going to an unfavorable direction, at least in my closer professional environment. I could almost touch the change even in the attitude of my friends with whom we decided to go on business terms.

Becoming an entrepreneur, after long years of public service and then corporate life, is itself a challenge, though an exciting one. New environment, new mindset, new attitude, new skills, etc. Worth trying, as adds really a lot to our character. At the beginning, I was to be very tolerant, driven by the motivation to find my place, to earn the trust of the prospective customers, get accepted and somehow appreciated when delivering. I simply wanted to prove that I can add value. Of course, “value”, again, is a very relative term, however, in business, I guess, we can say that if you deliver what has been expected (and not to forget – contracted), the “value” has been created. Consequently, it might give less space to sharp negative criticism. Despite of that, I had a conversation just recently about a requested price discount, assuming that the solution provided had been less complicated if had been delivered on time. Hm. Interesting reasoning. So if I was late and complaining in parallel in the process, that would have been more appreciated??? Hopefully it was an isolated case. At least I would isolate in myself as a complete non-sense…

Nevertheless, the contrast is larger when you are trying to get engaged for a project. You are at the table, which means something in itself, namely that you were considered to be capable of – or, at least, one of those who are capable of – delivering the requested results. Otherwise you would not be sitting at that table, right? … Despite of this fact, what you have to face is the following: without taking a step or moving the mouse of your computer, you already are non-transparent, playing tricks with the timesheet, spend much on unnecessary travelling, are slow and overcomplicated, send unnecessary mails and provide too long explanations, invoice “fake” performance, stemming from the fact of being slow and overcomplicated, are not flexible, and are irrespectful towards “THE CUSTOMER”. Huhhh …

Being a basically positive person, who loves her profession, can get enthusiastic about projects and thus inspire other team members, committed and determined to deliver the requested results, I literally became hesitant. And that is not a good sign. Hesitant to invest my time and efforts (such as my colleagues’) to projects where I am (and through me my whole team) instantly judged negatively, right at the start. Time is a scarce resource, so would be careful when utilizing it.…

The relevance of the cultural differences

Thinking about this issue a bit further and more general, I came to some conclusions. But before disclosing them, I would like to share how I was thinking.

Since we were born, we had been exposed to some general wisdom, some underlying principles. Depending on our cultural background, of course. Some came from family, some from a larger social context. Some pieces of that wisdom has proven to be valuable, still being a kind of driving force for us, some has become rather questionable over time, or simply overwritten by experience. One of the first frustrating things in our life – besides, of course, realizing that our beloved parents and adored children are not perfect – might be when question marks appear in our head around those very principles we thought would be universal… But what are these miraculous principles?

Before entering this discussion, have a word on the cultural differences and the background of those underlying principles. Of course, this is not a scientific analysis, so do not expect a high-quality comprehensive description, argument and conclusion. However, it would be an interesting topic, I guess.

Underlying principles and general wisdom pieces, however you call them, do both have their very reasonable purposes under the respective circumstances. They are to provide a sort of guidance on how to integrate into and exist in a particular social network. Let us call it society. You might think that something should be wrong about the starting point of this argument, as – at least in certain cultures – we are encouraged to be different, to have our own voice, meaning also to express critics, etc. However, in others, having a different attitude, a unique approach might be burdensome for us, creating a high level of cognitive dissonance within ourselves. And you are most probably right. But the thing is that you first have to have a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the respective principles or wisdom to judge them.

What seems to be obvious, is that being individualist, unique or outstanding in any form, might be difficult in cultural environments where similarity, assimilation and common sense is the priority, such as being shy, assimilative or socially solvent in others where individualism and distinctive nature are expected in exchange for appreciation.

Globalization, accessibility to travelling or international education such as the internet access and social media help a lot to find our way or place in the world. If not physically, then virtually. Although, a certain level of assimilation and integration is key, in every society, to the extent which might not go beyond levels that are detrimental for us. But what if they still do? What if there are absolute limits that might not be advisable to reach? It is time to come back to the original topic: the role and impact of criticism.

For simplification, let us assume that there are two types of cultural environments: competitive and cooperative. Associate the former with the high level of individualism, the need for standing out of the crowd and a ‘winner takes it all’ approach; the latter with an unconditionally respectful, team-based, ‘society above the individual’ approach. However you describe it. See how criticism would work in theory in these two different environments or in case of people coming from these environments.

In a competitive atmosphere, it is provided as a principle, that you should be graceful for critics, as they provide you with the opportunity to develop further. Sounds good so far. In a cooperative atmosphere, critics might be handled as interference, a kind of breach of the common sense. Remember, that we said: there is unconditional respect towards all the members of the given society. It also means, that in case criticism emerges, that may be associated with a serious incompliance, otherwise the unconditional acceptance would apply. That sounds logical, too.

Going further on this path, we can expect criticism to be encouraging in competitive environments, fueling personal development and growth, and discouraging in cooperative ones, where uniqueness beyond an acceptable level, triggering the criticism, means punishment and may result in cutting back on the outstanding approach.

We all tend to find or create our proper environment to be comfortable. Comfort might be both the personal and the professional one, meaning that – if we have the choice – we would tend to settle in environments the characteristics of which match – to a sufficient extent – the preconditions of our best performance. Again, both in personal and in professional sense. A perfectly simplified world, as our example, may become two parted then: having a competitive and a cooperative one, where people with the respective mindset would find their places. One big question may rise immediately: how the interactions would look like between the two parts – if any?

In a positive case, where each would approach the other with an understanding-seeking attitude, sooner or later, each part would see the possibility to attract people from the other part, to use their services to help understanding the other. In a negative case, it might be more interesting. The competitive part might take efforts to explore the weaknesses (as per their term) of the cooperative part and leverage on them to take a winner position (again, as per their term). The cooperative part may take efforts to explore the other part and accommodate it in order to create (more accurately to maintain) the cooperative atmosphere, though according to and to the extent of their set of principles, which means a punitive attitude for those cases where the experienced behavior is out of the standards. What is common in the two imagined cases, is that certain people might change part and would settle in the other for the aforementioned purposes. It would – obviously – generate new challenges….

Unjustified criticism in different cultural environments

Even in this very simplified and theoretical example, it is easy to see and understand, why is there a special dynamics in the world, in terms of cultural export-import. There is only one further step to see, why the role of criticism, especially the sharp and unjustified one, is key. 

The world, and as a part of it, the corporate world, has become a special mixture of people with very different cultural backgrounds. Corporates, themselves, created their own cultures, in order to make or have some common ground for the very different people, in good faith, in order to achieve the corporate goals. Competitive and cooperative attitudes exist side-by-side, which means that both teamwork and leadership are key elements in all of them. Depending on the dominant corporate cultural elements, either the cooperative character or the competitive character is stronger. Of course, it is not only the question of history or some kind of a deliberate decision, but also a necessity, provided that different industries or activity types demand different approaches.

I am probably not wrong to label the aforementioned sharply negative advance criticism as unjustified. Unjustified, as does not stem from real experience. I would not mention prejudice, as that would be expected to keep off certain entrepreneurs from that table…

Using the simplified example of the two parted world, it is an easy consequence that such unjustified criticism, in the case of a person coming from the competitive environment, would trigger the competitive attitude, furthermore, more probably, in a negative sense, due to the unjustified character (a justified one would trigger the positive version, that would encourage the development or growth). Simply, because requires self-explanation, counter-reasoning, etc. to reach a point from where the possibility to switch to a positive attitude might occur. Simplifying further: to reach the zero state needs some invested efforts. In the other case, where the respective person is from a cooperative environment, the unjustified criticism would trigger the instinct to withdraw, meaning that the possible value addition stemming from the cooperative background is immediately lost. Why do not I mention here the unjustified character? Because, I think, it loses its relevance. The person with the cooperative background may consider that criticism as a kind of a shot, a strong signal to enforce withdrawal, as it lacks any momentum of the cooperative intentions. Due to the basic characteristics like unconditional respect, acceptance and society above the individual. 

The conclusion

Regardless of the cultural environment, the consequences of the unjustified criticism are negative. In the competitive case it drives energy towards useless interactions, which do not result in value-generation, only used for offsetting the negative effects. In the cooperative case, triggers withdrawal from the performance. As a result, the value addition is either delayed, forced to a lower level, or completely lost as a possibility.

If we assume that extreme behavior is generally associated with some sort of imbalance, we might come to the conclusion that people applying unjustified criticism as a means of trying to achieve their business goals, are those who have less insight to human nature and its cultural determination, and might be a bit immature. Immature in the sense that their attitude is dominated by instinctive rather than cognitive elements. In our simplified example, when facing an unknown approach or attitude from a counterpart, triggers a defense mechanism, for example showing power. When preparing for a situation where they might face something unexpected, they tend to force themselves to come across as dominant. And advance unjustified criticism might seem to be a useful means…

Notwithstanding the above, simply, unjustified criticism is counterproductive. In my understanding, surely. Understanding the reasons might help to handle such situations, though understanding is not necessarily followed by acceptance… Why to accept counterproductive attitude where effectiveness and efficiency are key and rationality is the underlying assumption? If we have a certain amount of efforts to invest, why to invest into offsetting some negativism? Why shall we even think about entering into relationships, where the party is ready to throw away possible positive outcomes simply because of lack of maturity?

We all are responsible for setting the standards in a social network. If we let such elements in, accept them and invest efforts into trying to handle them, they might stay. And strengthen. And might become the new norm. Is it really what we want? …

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