Being Terrified of Criticism in the Workplace

I may not be perfect but I am self-aware. Said another way, I know I am not perfect because I am self-aware. That insight is valuable in and of itself.

This self-awareness enables me to strive for higher quality work, deeper friendships, better health – because I know there is room for improvement. I know that there is room for improvement because I am constantly reflecting on events and assessing the state of affairs. When I make progress, I mentally log and remember them. When there are missteps, I mentally log and remember them, too. (Sometimes I log my life in writing in Evernote, which truly is becoming an extension of my brain.) After some time of reflection, you begin to see in your mind’s eye that progress is a trajectory. If progress is a trajectory, then there must be a destination, either in eventuality or one to aspire to. Being aware of this destination in concept is what enables one to see room for improvement.

This self-awareness is the opposite of the flaw of poor leaders (and people in general) described by the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias. This cognitive bias refers to the inflated self-perception that a person of low cognitive ability has because she is not self-aware enough to know that she might not know or understand a thing fully.

A simple, tangible demonstration of the thinking that results from this bias: imagine a first grader that does really well in all of her arithmetic exams. Despite that, the third grader would likely not be able to chart out an academic path for herself to follow all the way to calculus because she is not aware of the higher-level mathematical concepts that follow mechanical arithmetic. If she is able to, then she is meta-cognitively gifted. Regardless, this student would still consider herself good, even excellent, in mathematics, because she is only reacting to the data ini front of her.

In the workplace, the awareness of imperfection is what matters, rather than being perfect, because then you can get yourself and your colleagues moving. In fact, I think this is what leaders are paid to do: architect a vision and move the organization towards the goalpost, and they are (should be) held accountable for progress towards the goal (“the destination”).

But, despite this appreciation for the room for improvement, I have been feeling truly awful anticipating criticism at work. When I detect the criticism coming, my emotions flare up. “What did I do wrong? Oh no, shit, I should have done better.” scrolls behind my eyes.

Why is it so terrifying to receive criticism?

A thing is not bad in and of itself unless it has a bad consequence. Criticism must feel terrifying because I interpret it as consequential, either materially or in the realm of values (i.e. breaching a value or tenet of my identity).  Fundamentally, I have a belief that I will be punished for imperfection or rewarded only for perfection. And, it’s hard to interpret real-world data correctly or in an unbiased way because when trying to interpret my life’s achievements, I am already fitting data to a narrative that I have in my head. I don’t think it’s possible to step out of that narrative to re-shape it in the moment, so that I can see, really see, what the world is and has been like. In the context of the workplace, this is where the work of strong leadership and good management comes in. Organizations that prioritize investment in their people offer their people, certainly their “stars”, that context of real-world data as often as possible.

When the bar to meet, the bar that sets what good looks like, is not clear, as it often isn’t in (poorly managed workplaces), then criticism is terrifying because you don’t know what the consequence of that criticism is. In a world, in an industry, where there are such few women in leadership (what I aspire to), I interpret any criticism to be a potential signal for future failure in the workplace.

I want to end on an inspiring note, a quote from Avni Shah from Google, that I heard at the 2017 Women in Product conference. Avni said, “there is a third fear after imposter syndrome and the fear of failure…and this is the fear of moving backwards…In this case, I optimized for the smallest chance to make an impact in education. That commitment immunized me from doubt later on about my choice.” From Avni, I took away that knowing your values and strategy for living your values prevents you from considering every noise coming at you. You don’t fear that you’re moving back because of a noise you hear in the middle of the night because you can see your destination and know what it takes to get there.

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