Why is criticism so upsetting? In the workplace — or maybe even in a marriage — we often hear feedback that is, well, critical. Maybe you are part of the very small fraction of people who naturally embrace it and learn from it, but most of us don’t. In fact, our natural tendency is to defend against it. We argue back, provide “evidence” that it’s inaccurate or even counter-punch at the person speaking to us. Each of us has a different automatic way of responding. Some people get angry, while others get defeated and slink away to recover. Whichever is your natural way of reacting, the odds are that you don’t innately like getting criticism.
On balance, negative feedback upsets us.
Maybe it stems from our prehistoric days when being part of the tribe, and thus accepted, was so fundamental to our physical survival that we learned to see anything other than that as perilous. Hunting alone was dangerous, so people banded together with their spears and rocks to track and kill prey. They slept and reared children in groups to have the benefit of numbers should an attack come from predators. Getting ousted from the safety of the group meant genuine danger, possible starvation and predation, and perhaps even death. So, it was a bad sign when the feedback turned negative.
The same instinct to protect ourselves lives on in the most primitive portions of brains and in our psychology, and so, we feel criticism as an attack and automatically defend against it.
Since criticism is both inevitable and even institutionalized in the form of performance reviews, 360° feedback loops and nasty online reviews, why not find a way to use it to our advantage by building a more useful reaction to it than what comes naturally? After all, short of living as a hermit, it is almost impossible to avoid.
Ray Dalio, founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, has taken the idea of finding a way to live with criticism to the extreme. He has built his entire company based on not only tolerating but seeking and giving criticism whenever it is apt. He calls his approach “radical transparency,” and while it may be extreme for your organization, his experience offers important lessons for all of us.
What if you were to view your life and your work as a series of experiments? For example, it’s easy to imagine trying a new sales pitch with a fixed number of leads and comparing its effectiveness to a different pitch to determine which one works the best. It’s an experiment, and the information you glean will help you to choose the better of the two pitches — or, if both fail, it will help you develop an entirely new one. Using the same approach, you could apply that logic to every aspect of your work — and your life.
All of us do this in certain moments. We calibrate our words, behavior or approach based on the feedback we are getting. You may notice a friend keeps interrupting you as you tell a story and recognize that you are hogging the conversation and he has something to add. You stop and ask what’s on his mind. That indirect feedback is useful because you can then change course and do something different to be a better friend in that moment.
Most people find it hard to deliver criticism, so they do it reluctantly. If we then respond defensively, with argumentation or surliness, we just corroborate their belief that it’s dangerous to give negative feedback. But if, instead, we can reframe our innate defensiveness and view it as useful data for this experiment (in our communication, management, sales, marriage, parenting, etc.), we can embrace the information with relish. Those conversations become valued resources that shouldn’t be squandered. It also reinforces a message to the person who gives the feedback that their point of view is valuable and useful. If you are in a leadership role, that perception adds to your ability to foster greatness in your team.
Yes, from time to time, the criticism is based more on the giver than on you, and they are not giving the criticism reluctantly but with malice. But, even if that were true, why miss the possible value to be gleaned? After all, he or she may be a jerk, but you are becoming better through that feedback, regardless of what motivated it.
According to Ray Dalio and others who have worked at Bridgewater, not only do people get used to hearing the daily criticism they receive and become resilient, they begin to crave and adore it. It is helpful and provides insights and tools to grow, evolve and improve faster and with greater precision than they could possibly do without it. That’s a big shift from feeling defensive and hurt when we get less-than-stellar reviews on our work or behavior. So, try it out. Next time you hear negative feedback, take a moment to adjust your thinking, and view it as valuable data that you can use to improve and hone your skills. Think of this as a new skill you’re building. The exercise gets easier as you practice. Once you master it, just imagine how much faster you will reach your goals.
This article first appeared in Forbes.com on May 2nd, 2018