I have a theory that the guy who invented the term “constructive criticism” was never told that his plan sucked. “I was only giving constructive criticism.” Whenever that phrase is volunteered, a mysterious green light for unfiltered commentary begins. In my experience, “constructive criticism” is usually neither that constructive nor helpful.
Before the salvos of “being thick skinned” and “emotional toughness” begin, know that I am not at all suggesting that there can be no confrontation or disagreement. In fact, I will argue that we need more communication and discussion before crossing into execution mode. In a perfect world, this communication would be constrained to facts and not opinions, but there is a very fine line between both sometimes.
The data management organization is a breeding ground for constructive criticism. After all, these people are shaping the way every single employee will interact and execute against information. In addition, each decision around how data is entered and used requires buy-in from often-disparate teams who may have unique points of view. Without rules, polices, and standards, however, opinions flow like lava from Vesuvius.
Looking back at some leadership gates throughout my career, the memories of dealing with a hypercritical subordinate (the guy who always said no) give me the most angst. We all know this persona. He, or she, is the one who always has a better plan, whether he/she shares it or not is immaterial in their minds. Every decision, idea, plan or concept will become cannon fodder for this type. To add complexity, this person is senior enough to be included in mission or program development and has support of his participation. In some cases, he or she had subject matter experience that the leadership team did not. This cat was also very popular within the organization. It was the supreme recipe for disaster.
His comments were usually borderline insubordinate, but rooted in just enough doctrine that we always had to consider that he was right and we were wrong. It was like being on Shark Tank with subordinates instead of investors. Over the course of a few months, I found myself traveling through a cycle of self-doubt, frustration and anger. It had gotten to the point where I was fearful of losing control of the entire team.
Then it hit me; this was not all together bad it (this experience) was actually quite good. It really was that abrupt.
I can’t remember exactly what triggered my epiphany. It was most likely a confluence of several thoughts and emotions. First, I had never been harshly challenged and forced to defend my position. I did not know how to debate. Second, I had lost some confidence; I had forgotten that complex problems required information that I readily possessed. The opening “shock” forced me into some mental vapor lock. I took it personally instead of professionally. In retrospect, my nemesis rarely had as much information as me (usually the case) and I didn’t realize that value of that information. Third, but probably the most valuable, knowing there was a naysayer before I even started forced me to examine my plans with more detail than I had before. It was the six p’s to the nth degree. And last, I realized that as a member of the leadership team, we didn’t have to be right on every decision, just unified.
The lessons that can be learned from my experience center around the fact that criticism, by definition, is finding fault in something…but no one enjoys being a punching bag. Leaders should not be hyper-focused on being wrong or right or avoiding bruised egos, but rather on making the wise and right decision. With a little effort the climate should welcome the guy or gal who always says no. Assuming their pedigree is good, they will force the leadership to stay unified and focused on the best decision for the business. Where the line is drawn between helpful and disruptive is when your authority is undermined. Make sure that you keep these folks close and consider the “constructive criticism” they offer. Don’t let them get to you, do your homework, stay confident and always focused.