Business Negotiation August 05, 2014

Criticism and the Psychological Flywheel

When we are criticized, our psychological flywheel begins to spin more slowly.   If someone we work with, be it our boss or peer, takes fault with our work, it slows our wheel...

When we are criticized, our psychological flywheel begins to spin more slowly.  If someone we work with, be it our boss or peer, takes fault with our work, it slows our wheel.  If they do so over and over again our flywheel almost comes to a standstill.  We become depressed and retaliate by finding subtle ways to do less or to absent ourselves from the problem.

Being criticized in front of others has an even more devastating effect.  The humiliation of public loss of face is never forgotten.  It waits to be avenged overtly or in whispers when opportunity arises.

Criticism, even when done in private, slows the flywheel.  A friend, a good writer with far better than average skills in expressing herself, told me of a supervisor she worked for.  A fussy boss, he criticized her reports not only for analytical content but also for irrelevant grammatical matters.  Angered by this constant criticism, but needing the job, she gradually changed her approach.  The reports became less analytical, the sentences shorter, the words one syllable in length.  Little was left to find fault with. She left the firm soon after for a job that better appreciated her talents and allowed her to sort these matters out for herself.  Now, two years later and vice president of the firm, her flywheel spins well.

That’s the way frequent criticism works not only on writers but also on medical doctors, engineers, computer programmers and factory employees.  Not only does it reduce their creativity and inclination to do good work, it leads them to retreat in search of emotional security.

Criticism also plays a harmful role at team meetings.  What we want as managers or team leaders are associates who feel free to express their ideas and concerns without fear of censure.  What we get instead is the opposite: brilliant engineers or scientists who are apprehensive about speaking up because they are cowed by others more forceful, articulate or blatantly critical of anything they disagree with.

Most of us have attended weekly meetings and heard door-closing expressions like “That’s crazy,” “That won’t work,” “We tried that last year and it failed.” These door-closers, directed at the person proposing a new approach or idea, act to stop the flow of information in its tracks.  Not only does it serve to stop the person under attack, it tends to mute others in the room as well.  Who would want to go through such an inquisition when it could easily be avoided by keeping quiet?

What should be our role as an associate or member of the project team?  It is to recognize the negative effects of criticism and “door-closing” expressions on those speaking, and to support the leader in quieting such expressions the moment they take place. Our role is to encourage the leader to negotiate and stick to an agenda that allows the presenters to fully express themselves and gets associates the answers they need.  Unless meeting leaders have the full support of the group, they will fail to develop the collaboration necessary to create the new products and services we sorely need to compete on a world stage.
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