Holidays may be a good time for introspection and a little self-analysis. E-mails, mobile phones and SMS permitting, we may take a break for a few days and remain a little more distant of immediate action. For me at least, vacation is also a moment of doing internal “house-cleaning”. How I have been doing compared to the year before, thinking of things I am proud of – and of the things that I would wish I had done differently or even not at all.
How do we know if we’re doing a good job? This is more difficult than it would initially appear. In some jobs we have measurable results, but in many others results are unknown and unknowable. Even if there are results, how to analyse these? Compared to budget, and to previous years for sure, but then the situation was also very different. We would have to compare to a company or a person in the exact same business under the exact same circumstances, and we’re not likely to find these.
There is, however, good news: there is criticism. Criticism tells you how you’re doing, at least from the point of view of the person who criticises you.
The problem with criticism is, we are woefully unprepared to deal with it. I bless my parents for the education they provided to me, but dealing with criticism was not part of it. I believe this is general in the Western world. As a result, I used to get livid when someone criticised me during the start of my career. Although I did not express it, it became virtually black behind my eyes and I had great difficulty in continuing to listen. On more than one occasion, I seriously considered leaving the company after I had been criticised. But I was lucky: one day a senior colleague explained to me that I should never get angry when being criticised. He explained to me that criticism is almost invariably a sign of affection, and an opportunity to improve.
This, of course, is the essence of criticism. Think of it in daily life: if you decided your car dealer is hopeless, you will not criticise. You will simply go somewhere else. It is only if you intend to return there, and hope for a better experience next time, that you will take the time and energy to point out what it is you wish to improve. In other words, when you criticise them, you really are telling them: “I’ll be back.” This is good news for the dealer, and at the same time they get free consulting on how to improve their performance.
As a Managing Director and shareholder, I do not receive a lot of criticism. After all, I decide on many people’s salaries, rises, bonuses, promotions, or even if they’re remaining with us at all. In other words, people are afraid. When I meet customers, which I often do (but not nearly often enough) they will likewise be polite and avoid overt criticism, if only to “protect” my colleagues who have done the actual work.
All this is a pity. Do I like to hear criticism? No. However, I do know that criticism is like going to the dentist: it is not all that pleasant, but if you don’t go you’ll be worse off over time. Of the few people who DO criticise me in my company, I know they trust me, they want to stay, and want to improve my performance and therefore the performance of the company. Therefore, I know these people I can absolutely trust.
This then, is my message to you: when people criticise you, especially people who report to you, embrace such criticism. Ask what they mean, think about it and you will see there is likely to be at least an element of wisdom for you. Which is an opportunity to improve. And consider following: to criticise one’s boss is a brave act. People are not likely to do this quickly or lightly. So, probably what they’re telling you is not only true, it is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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