Being critical about criticism

Tue, 13/04/2021 - 13:08

For around four years in my career, I worked with the most hypercritical executive creative director I had ever met. She would make her team members cry in an effort to get the best work possible out of them. At first, I was appalled. What an awful, awful human being, I thought. She stalked around, checking work, tweaking, changing, updating. How nit-picky and over the top. How horrible, how awful. I would avoid her, fearing that she would criticise my very existence.

Then one day, the office was rearranged. For my sins, I was forced to share a desk with her. So, I did what any sane person would do, I tried to make friends. I was surprised to find that she was an incredibly warm and open human being. After several weeks of sitting opposite her, I realised that her criticisms were not self-indulgent displays of power. She was sitting on a wealth of knowledge, of experience and the best way to transfer this knowledge was through pointing out the issues in the work of her team and giving them direction. Her criticisms were valid. She gave genuinely good reasons for why she wanted changes. She pushed because she understood that most people don’t reach their full potential without an occasional kick in the you-know-what. Her team was thriving and they respected her (other than the one or two). They sought out her criticism, knowing that it made them better at their jobs. My perception changed and I began to learn.

I’m no creative director, but I can recognise good work when I see it now. I have eyes, whereas before I was blind. I used to look at designs and if the words made sense, I was fine with it. But, just by being in the general vicinity of the ‘hypercritical’ creative director, I learned what to look for in those designs and ideas. It was one of the most important learning experiences I’ve ever had. Here is my point: criticism is absolutely vital. Everything should be approached with a critical eye. Everything. If you’re letting things slide because you feel sorry for the person generating the work, you’re missing out on opportunities to help them grow. If you’re letting things slip because you’re tired or you couldn’t be bothered, maybe you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.

Criticism is the bedrock of growth. If you don’t know what’s wrong, how will you ever know how to fix it? There is a caveat. Just as criticism is good, it can also be used for evil. I have seen work being criticised for no real reason other than to appease ego or play a political game. Good criticism is backed by a fundamental understanding of the process, a wealth of experience, and a helpful pointer in the right direction. The egotistical criticisms have none of the above.

Dare I say it, ignore where possible.


What has prompted this article? Well, criticism and accountability go hand-in-hand. As a team lead, CEO, or manager, your ability to provide strong constructive criticism is the same as delegating responsibility and accountability. Criticism is the package in which responsibility and accountability are wrapped. If you do not criticise, or you are unable to articulate your criticisms in a useful and constructive way, the people working under you will lack direction. A lack of criticism means a lack of accountability.

In news more relevant to digital marketing, Facebook just walked away from the negotiation table during the Australian government’s bid to get them to pay publishers every time an article was shared. Why could Facebook comfortably do that? The criticism of their platform was unfounded and poorly backed. Let’s not talk about how Google capitulated though. I could list off countless other examples, but the lesson is, criticise, and criticise well my friends.

Your business may depend upon it.

*This article originally appeared on Retailing Africa .

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