If you are hooked on praise, try some criticism

You would have liked Joe (let’s call him Joe); most people did.  He was clever by any standard, good at sports, charming in a non-too-sickly kind of way, conventionally good-looking and seemingly able to breeze through work and life with a nonchalant ease.

But that wasn’t the whole story; at least not to those of us who knew him well.  You see Joe had a need: a deep yearning need that, when not fulfilled, left him feeling empty. The truth is Joe was hooked on praise.  It almost didn’t matter what kind of praise, anything would do.  ‘You did a great job on that audit, Joe’, ‘Fabulous shot, Joe’, Outstanding presentation, Joe’ all helped to feed his need for, even his addiction to, the approval of others. It may not be going too far to say that Joe’s entire professional and private life revolved around eliciting positive attention from others. He often achieved his goal. Still it was never enough.

Joe went on to be successful by most people’s standards, so does any of this matter?  Well I know that, if on the off-chance that Joe reads this, it will matter to him as the counter-balance to his   addiction was that any constructive criticism or even less-than-fulsome praise stung him severely.

And the thing is, there is some of Joe in all of us.  There certainly is in me.  And we need to recognise it because this sort of deep-seated tendency is a barrier to improvement.  Real improvement.

We all know it’s easy enough to get positive feedback if we deliberately fish for compliments, or catch people on the hop or if we only select those people who are likely to say the things we want to hear.  Most people like to say nice things and will tend to do so.  The limp failure of most 360 degree feedback processes is testimony to this.

But what if we seek criticism instead?  And I mean really, genuinely and persistently seek criticism.  This is not some sort of weird professional masochism, rather it’s what I believe to be one of the most useful ways to develop quickly in professional life.  So what if instead of just asking ‘How did I do’ or ‘How did this project go’, we also ask, ‘What did I miss?’ and ‘How could I have done it better?’. Then really listen to the answer and do something about it.

I wonder just how good Joe could have been if that’s what he’d done?

By the way, how could this article have been better?

Steve Lee, Partner, Aretai LLP

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