Criticism and Improvement

by Krishna on December 31, 2006

By definition, improvement implies change. You cannot improve if you keep doing exactly the same thing. How do you know when to change? There are 2 ways. One way is to to realize this yourself. Typically this happens through experience or gaining knowledge through books, conversations or training. Another way is to have other people criticize you, tell you what is wrong and how to improve.

The first method is good, but the disadvantage is that there is only so much experience or knowledge you can gain in limited time. Sometimes, by the time you acquire the knowledge, you have already moved on to other things. Also, there are certain beliefs and principles that you may swear by that makes you filter the information you receive, thus preventing you from gaining new perspective in those fields.

By having people provide you feedback, you can gain more ideas for improvement. In product development, we see this all the time. When a product is released to real users (in beta or as a production version), users come back with many different suggestions (some simple, some major) — Implementing them helps improve the application. Look at the current versions of any software product from operating systems to word processors to browsers. Some new features are the result of better technology, but many ideas could have been implemented easily in previous versions, but the development team was just not aware that there was a need.

What about feedback about one’s own activities? The people who can give you feedback are the ones who interact with you: Family, friends, bosses, colleagues, subordinates and customers. Usually, most people provide criticism and feedback when it is in their interest to do so. For example, a customer may complain about service because it is interfering with their business. A manager will complain about shoddy writing because it will require additional valuable time from them to edit your work before it can be used.

But how about people giving feedback because they think it is in your interest to improve? My opinion is that they would do that again out of self-interest, not tangible benefits, but because they experience joy and satisfaction in seeing you succeed. That is why family is the best source to gain such feedback. We frequently see family members (elders or siblings) provide unsolicited advice because they don’t want us to do something that will be detrimental to us. Friends (both intimate and casual friends) do the same — they repeatedly interfere in our lives because they have our best interests in their mind. If you go to a church, mosque or other religious place, you would also see the religious leader give you personal advice.

In professional lives, it is not as straightforward as this. But it can be made easier by cultivating friends among colleagues and peers. With people who are working under or over you, you will receive feedback only if you ask for it and then show that you, in fact, liked getting the feedback. The problem that most people face is that if you request negative feedback, sometimes, it will be something unexpected — like something you thought you were doing well and people thought you were not. For example, I may think I am the best analyst, but then someone tells me that I am poor in a particular area of analysis, I will be surprised and offended. Negative feedback puts us in a very defensive mood and we get into an argument over whether the feedback is true.

Once you start arguing with the critic, it is over. The person thinks that your talk of obtaining feedback was just that — talk and nothing of substance behind it. The person who gave you the feedback didn’t gain anything by doing so and has lost interest in helping you in future. You have lost a valuable source of information. So, the best thing you can do when you hear bad feedback is to swallow your pride, listen intently to what the person has to say, thank them profusely and then act upon the suggestions offered.

Doing that will encourage others to openly communicate with you, making you more effective. Hearing criticism of oneself is one of the toughest things that you can experience. It is natural to be upset and get defensive — and frequently, one will. But perhaps, moving forward, we will be more aware of what such behavior could result in and be careful.

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