Our culture of criticism


Last time I wrote about New Zealand's 'tall poppy syndrome', and our propensity to cut ourselves down before others get the chance. Here I thought I would share some ruminations on a related subject - our culture of criticism.

At my place of work (a government department), we have just completed our end-of-year reviews. As part of these reviews, it is standard practice for the manager of each member of his team to speak to three 'referees' (colleagues - generally peers - who have worked closely with the staff member over the year) for their views on the person's performance. The default questions asked of these referees are: 'What did this person do well over the last year?' and 'What could they do better?'. In other words, the questions are designed to elicit as least some form of criticism.

I was a referee for a young woman I have worked with over the past year. She is extremely capable: she is both intellectually switched on and 'street-wise'; she is good at sizing people up and adjusting her approaches to a task based on who she is working with. She is a quiet achiever, who will go a long way. She is also very reflective, and is more than capable of identifying what areas she may need to focus on in terms of her development. So when I was asked, 'What could Jane [not real name] do better?', I was stumped. While I know that this person has plenty of opportunities for growth and development (like all of us), I don't necessarily see this as her 'needing to do things better' - I simply see this as her being at a certain stage in her development, and steadily working towards her goals, which I have no doubt she will reach.

So, I said, 'No, nothing'.

I work in an organisation of more than 300 people. I suspect I may have been alone in giving that response to that question. When asked this kind of question, it is very hard to resist drumming up some bit of 'constructive criticism', because, I suspect, most of us worry that to not do so will reflect badly on ourselves; it must indicate a shortcoming in our own analytical or reflective abilities.

This is borne out too by a common method employed by managers: the 'feedback sandwich', otherwise known as the 'sh*t sandwich'. This is where the manager 'sandwiches' one bit of 'constructive criticism' between two bits of 'positive feedback'. Some years ago, I had one manager who had only partially mastered this technique. He always remembered the first bit of positive feedback (though this tended to be rather vague and unconvincing - simply a 'hook' to hang the 'real' feedback on), followed by the inevitable 'but ....' But he would invariably forget the top layer of the sandwich. I referred to this as the 'open sandwich' technique, and after a while it became a source of wry amusement. I found myself raising my eyebrows expectantly in anticipation of the 'but'. But it always saddened me that this person could not give positive feedback without feeling compelled to counter-balance it with something negative.

If someone is capable and smart, why is it not acceptable to simply say so? Why not allow people the space to reflect on their own abilities and performance and identify their own areas of growth - supporting them in this if necessary?

Are we afraid of creating a society of .... horrors!! ... TALL POPPIES??

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