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Zen and the Art of Constructive Criticism
Posted By Erin Dorney On May 2, 2012 @ 6:30 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled
If there were a single piece of advice I have for new professionals entering the field of librarianship, it would be to develop the skill of giving and receiving criticism. This isn’t something I’ve been able to find in an LIS course catalog, slate of webinar programming, or conference booklet (although it looks like there’s an awesome presentation later this week at LOEX!). While we’re not formally educated in the art of critique, library professionals are required to provide and accept feedback in a variety of different situations. For example, we might engage in giving and receiving criticism to and from colleagues, supervisors, and mentees and in other situations (for tenure, during instructional observations, when providing job references, during peer review, annual evaluations, etc.).
Even when handled constructively, feedback can be a heavy burden, particularly for new professionals entering the field. Our hesitation to educate and engage in positive feedback models is symptomatic of a black and white view of the world. In librarianship, this view manifests itself through dualities like cataloging or public services; user-focused or stuck in the past; innovative or resistant to change; colleagues who love us or hate us. Communication is seen as either good or bad, delineation often made within seconds based on gut reaction and the context surrounding a particular situation or person involved. But every situation has its shades of gray. Although we are not our ideas and we are not our words, we often place a sense of ownership and identity in communication. The difficult part comes when we need to separate ourselves from what we say and what we hear.
My own struggle with criticism is a process of continual learning based on research and self-reflection. This Lead Pipe article will outline tips for providing constructive criticism, methods of accepting feedback when it is given, and how to productively handle destructive criticism.
It is important to mention that dealing with criticism is not simply an exercise of mental control. Who among us has not experienced the racing heartbeat, tense muscles, and rise in blood pressure the moment a grad school paper is delivered with a grade or a peer-reviewed article is sent back with edits? When our actions are called into question, we are forced to counteract our own physiology. In her article on the psychology of giving and taking in critical feedback, Wright refers to this as a “negativity bias,” based on the fact that different nervous system circuits handle negative information/events than handle positive information/events. Baumeister and his colleagues from Case Western Reserve University and Free University of Amsterdam unpack this idea further in their extensive 2001 study of why bad is stronger than good across a broad range of psychological phenomena: “Even after the behavioral response to a fear-inducing conditioned stimulus has been extinguished, the brain retains a changed pattern of neuronal connections between cells…” (Baumeister 336). Thus, these negative systems are more sensitive and as a result, we react quickly and viscerally to bad news.
Our reactions are based on deeply seeded “fight or flight” survival instincts. When we are critiqued we risk exclusion and with a pack mentality, this would equal death. “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good,” says Baumeister (325).
Right now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the modern world. While we no longer travel in herds, our culture is predominantly a social one. There is pressure (from the media, our upbringing, the government, our peers) to conform and exist within the boundaries of what is acceptable. Most of us function within this system to earn the money we need to purchase the necessities of life. It’s not exactly hunting, but the grocery store certainly isn’t free. “What hurts most in negative feedback, then, isn’t the overt content of the message so much as the threat of exclusion, abandonment, and ostracism that accompanies it,” says Wright (59). In the workplace, criticism threatens our ability to survive. It’s no wonder our palms get sweaty walking into our annual evaluation meetings.
At a basic level, criticism is judgment and no one likes to feel judged. In a profession full of individuals who care so deeply about their work, receiving feedback can often feel like a personal blow. Our workplaces are emotionally charged, particularly during times of great change.
Before discussing how to productively receive criticism, it’s imperative to focus on how we communicate when we give it. Always providing constructive criticism is a step in the right direction towards strengthening emotional intelligence. Begin by questioning your motives for providing feedback to another individual:
The wrong reasons to give feedback:
The right reasons to give feedback:
Although considering your motives may seem like a basic first step, a reflective practice of communication is the most effective. The individual you are providing feedback to will only be able to guess at your intentions based on what you communicate through words and body language. Being upfront about your intentions also includes being open about the severity of the criticism. What are the consequences for the recipient of this criticism? Are comments being offered up as food for thought? Did he commit career-suicide and is being fired? Will the conversation end with a formal complaint for her personnel file? It is critical to communicate the severity of the feedback at the beginning of the conversation so that the individual can stop worrying and focus on the issue at hand rather than the consequences.
Another strategy for giving constructive criticism is to lead the conversation with questions and observations. This helps the individual feel a sense of ownership in the conversation as opposed to being scolded. For example: “Did you know that the pitch of your voice changes during class? I could really tell when you believed in what you were saying and when you didn’t.” Bringing attention to something through observation or asking a question may be enough push for the individual to make a change.
Constructive criticism should be concrete and actionable, providing the recipient with alternatives for correction. There is a fine line between being constructive and couching criticism in positive affirmations. For example, consider the difference between “The unicorn on that poster looks a little sad. Have you thought about raising his eyebrows or giving him a smile to help convey a happier expression?” and “Wow, that unicorn is AMAZING, it’s so artistic and well-proportioned, and it’s super adorable, but… it has really sad eyes.” Without clear communication, we may fail to deliver critiques effectively. This can make the situation more stressful as the individual struggles to decipher mixed messages.
“Quality constructive criticism implicitly recognizes worth in receivers’ work…” (Petress)
Even when given constructively, for the right reasons, and with grace, receiving criticism can feel uncomfortable. However, a big part of learning is recognizing, analyzing, and fixing our mistakes. In a profession focused on lifelong learning, the skill of accepting feedback should be an area of continual improvement.
Criticism is best received when it is invited, so perhaps we should welcome it more frequently within libraries. Dianna Booher (CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications training firm) recommends starting long-term professional relationships with a frank discussion, asking “Do you intend to make any mistakes over the course of the next three years?” Yes, this is a hilariously absurd line of questioning— of course mistakes will be made! However, a line of conversation in this vein opens the door to a conversation about how the individuals would like to handle criticism and feedback. Would you like to receive feedback in-person? How often? Over email? At the end or beginning of the day? Using humor to lighten the tone of this important dialogue will decrease anxiety and help both parties feel more relaxed moving forward. It is a strategy that would be ideal for new librarians, interns, or graduate assistants, in order to start developing their emotional intelligence and ability to give and receive criticism.
In order to receive more concrete and actionable criticism, ask for feedback on a specific aspect of your work rather than general thoughts. For example, instead of asking a colleague “How do you think my instruction session went?” ask “Did using Poll Everywhere seem to increase the amount of student interaction/interest in the session?” or “How do you think the peer-to-peer learning aspect of having students demo EBSCO Discovery Service at the front of the class went?” Asking for feedback on a particular aspect lets you relax and focus on the areas you’re interested in improving, rather than being self-conscious about aspects you know you can improve on your own. Considering the medium through which you communicate your request for feedback (and the feedback itself) is also important. It is incredibly difficult to provide constructive criticism through e-mail, as tone is hard to discern and body language is non-existent. Communicating face to face is best, even if it’s just a quick 15-minute conversation in a colleague’s office.
The late Dr. Ken Petress, professor emeritus of communication at the University of Maine, recommends that recipients resist being dogmatic or rigid about their work, whatever it may be. We sometimes hear what we want to hear, not what is being communicated. This is understandable when we have poured a lot of time and energy into projects that we are passionate about. However, the ability to remain flexible and adapt to critical feedback are skills that will help move librarianship forward.
One of my Lead Pipe colleagues, Brett Bonfield, shared the following story with me, told by Paul Graham about Sam Altman. It has become “…something of a legend,” among start up founders and hackers and receiving a similar reaction that Ranganathan’s “Every book its reader” gets among librarians (Bonfield):
“Someone who’s not yet an adult will tend to respond to a challenge from an adult in a way that acknowledges their dominance. If an adult says ‘that’s a stupid idea,’ a kid will either crawl away with his tail between his legs, or rebel. But rebelling presumes inferiority as much as submission. The adult response to ‘that’s a stupid idea,’ is simply to look the other person in the eye and say ‘Really? Why do you think so?’”
Interpreting criticism can be tricky, as it is difficult to separate criticism of one’s work from criticism of the person. Try to make a good-faith assumption that the criticism is positively motivated. If the conversation still feels destructive, engage in perception checking to determine if you are decoding the speaker’s message correctly. This provides a non-threatening opportunity for the critic to clarify their feedback before professional relationships are damaged.
Criticism hinges on the perception of authority, which can often impact its reception. In the workplace, unsolicited advice can trigger resentment because the recipient may feel like the critic is presuming authority over him or her. “Such feedback tends to come across as a power play— something that’s easier to tolerate in a manager who’s a recognized authority than a peer who isn’t,” says Wright (61). So, what can you do when you doubt the authority of the person giving you feedback, either because the person is not in a supervisory role or you doubt that they are offering something constructive and for the right reasons?
Being equipped with language to respond to destructive criticism can help you deal with it in a healthy manner. The following phrases leave the door open for discussion— everyone involved gets to save face. It can be stressful to feel obligated to solve a problem at a particular moment in time. Adopting these responses can demonstrate that you are open to new ideas but don’t force you to commit on the spot, a particularly useful technique if you suspect that the criticism is being delivered for the wrong reasons. Feel free to add your own responses to the list in the comments area below the article.
Professionals should keep in mind that leaders are always targets for criticism. “To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction,” says technologist Clay Shirky. Destructive criticism, typically motivated by negativity, says more about the critic than the recipient. In these cases, it may be helpful to investigate resources on how to care less.
Giving and accepting criticism requires great emotional strength, but that is no excuse to avoid conflict. Good decisions emerge from conflict and consensus decision-making. However, it is important to communicate constructively in order to move our profession forward and build meaningful relationships. Libraries and other institutions must develop a culture where dissent is okay, even valued.
Graduate programs in librarianship should integrate teaching feedback models into the curriculum. In their pilot study, educators Patricia L. Harms and Deborah Britt Roebuck found that business students appreciated opportunities to role-play giving and receiving feedback to become more comfortable with the process of delivering constructive criticism (426). After learning the BET/BEAR model in the classroom, students reported adopting this approach successfully in real world situations.
Additionally, professional development opportunities abound in this area of interpersonal communication. Libraries continue to seek out ways to develop leadership potential through regional and national programs like the ALA Emerging Leaders. As we consider how managers are being created, the ability to give and receive constructive criticism should be high on the list of desired traits. Hands-on workshops with role-playing and “judgment-free” practice zones could be organized for conference programming.
As a new professional, this has been one of my largest areas of growth over the past four years. And, as advocates of lifelong learning and an informed citizenry, it is important for librarians to act as role models to the people we serve. On a final note, if your only comment to this Lead Pipe article is “This sucks,” I refer you up to the criticism motives chart in section two. Learn it. Live it. We can all do this better.
Many thanks to James DelRosso for his constructive criticism on this piece. Thanks also to Sheila Kasperek, Lindsey Girard, and Lead Pipers Hilary Davis, Brett Bonfield, Ellie Collier, Leigh Anne Vrabel and Emily Ford for edits, comments, and thought provoking questions. Props to #alatt for the brainstorming!
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