I was just listening to the Lifestyle Business Podcast, "Episode 51 - 5 Signs You Might be a Loser" - great podcast. It's an aggressive title, but it's actual a super helpful episode that's not aggressive at all.
One of the topics on there was criticism - Dan and Ian were talking about how it's a sure path to loserdom if you can't take constructive criticism.
I think that's true, but I still try to almost never give negative criticism to anyone, ever.
"As a general rule...people ask for advice only in order not to follow it; or if they do follow it, in order to have someone to blame for giving it." — From Alexandre Dumas's "The Three Musketeers"
I've found the vast majority of people will never take any criticism you give them, will be upset at you for criticizing them, and will dislike you even more if you were right.
This is something of a hard thing to accept. Obviously, you want all your friends and family and colleagues to become successful. If you study and apply yourself to succeeding, certainly you'll pick up some ideas about what works and what doesn't. But normally, if you tell someone that what they're doing isn't working, it goes poorly.
I've gotten this wrong plenty, and still get it wrong sometimes. Most of the time, giving critical advice to someone is a very, very bad idea. I can only think of a few exceptions to that rule.
But if you're inclined to be successful, you probably want to get critical feedback. Here's some thought son how to do that -
On Getting Honest Feedback -
Most sensible people eventually stop giving any sort of negative criticism at all - it almost never works to change behavior, and quite frequently strains a relationship.
But, if you're dead-set on building more and doing more, it'd certainly help to have some honest critical feedback from time to time. How to do that?
1. Do what's recommended to you. You can get general good advice all over the place - a book, a podcast, a website, an article, an essay is recommended. A strategy for raising your credit score, a vitamin supplement that might help with an injury you have.
Most people don't take this advice. But, you could jump to take it, especially if you asked for it. When you put advice you got into motion quickly, it shows that giving you advice isn't useless. This is a funny thing - most people don't take most advice. Thus, giving advice is a really bad proposition - it probably won't accomplish anything good, and has a chance of causing bad feelings. But if you show that giving you advice produces good results, you're more likely to get it.
2. Report back and be grateful. After taking some advice quickly, report back that you did it, and say thanks for the advice. Be quite cool and gracious about it. If it's appropriate, give a small gift to say thanks for the guidance.
It's surprising how rare this happens... we're naturally forgetful. Get some sort of note taking or to-do-list-managing going on in your life, and make a note when you start to follow someone's advice. Afterwards, call or email to say thanks and share your observations.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 a few times. After you get good advice from someone, implement it quickly, then be gracious and thankful about it. Wait a little while, maybe a couple weeks, and then reach out to them again for more advice. Also, try to be helpful and cool and all of that.
If you do this 2-3 times, you differentiate yourself from almost everyone else. Most people don't put advice into action quickly if ever, and aren't very gracious afterwards. Do both, and you stand out.
4. Already identify a problem or lacking area and take some (even small) action on it before asking for advice. At this point, you've taken a few suggestions, implemented them, and been very gracious about it. Now, something like, "Hey, I know you've got excellent nutrition and fitness and it's something I've been working on. I've already cut sweets from my diet entirely, could you recommend anything else you see I'm doing subpar?"
Showing that you're already aware and taking action helps.
5. Ask for brutal harshness, and then celebrate it. "I'm trying to improve my finances, and you're the most savvy person with money I know. I want you to be totally brutal with me here, and I'll respect and admire you more the more brutal you are. Could you give me an honest assessment of the biggest mistake or two you see? We've been friends a while, so you probably noticed something, eh?"
That one only works if you're consistently demonstrated that you can put advice into practice and are gracious about it. Afterwards, be even more grateful and gracious if you get hard advice, and then try to put that into action.
Most savvy people absolutely will not give you advice on an emotionally-related topic - money, food, identity, work, relationships, things like that. I've learned the hard way not to do it. So if you want that advice, you've got to show you can handle it and you appreciate it. If possible and it's desirable, credit whoever gave you advice publicly and speak really well of them for doing so.
6. Getting critical feedback from professionals. You can short-circuit and speed up this whole process by getting feedback from your accountant, lawyer, doctor, nutritionist, or whatever - but do remember that savvy professionals are still careful about giving critical feedback. Most people don't like it, and might even take their business elsewhere if they feel bad enough.
Getting around that - "Bob, you know why I hire you, right? It's because you're always giving great feedback and you're really sharp on the ball. So, I want you to give me really critical feedback here. Don't hold back. I know this an area that needs improvement, and I'm only going to be happy if you give me the most raw, honest feedback you can. What do you think about (X)?"
A final thought on giving feedback - if you're really dead set on helping someone, start by giving them positive feedback and see if they take it. It's a lot easier to suggest adding something than suggest cutting or changing something. If someone can't take positive feedback and implement, there's almost no chance they'll take negative feedback.
If you do have occasion to give critical feedback, make it very clear what your motives are. People get really suspicious and defensive when criticized, so make it very clear that you're not looking for anything, or even trying to gain moral superiority out of it.
Finally, stressing your own mistakes and personal experience goes a long way towards not making feedback hurt. When a person hears they're doing something wrong, they don't like it and typically don't react well. But if you stress that you used to do it that way, understand why, but then you changed - it might be a little more palatable.
Still, you probably don't want to give critical feedback very often if ever - it almost never works. But you do want to get it! So, show people that their critical feedback won't be lost on you - you'll take advice into consideration, put into action quickly, and be very gracious for receiving it.
what if, you have a former boss who asks you what you think of her current team because she purportedly values the accuracy of your evaluation and your experience, but can't take feedback that is less than glowing, even if you frame it in the context of what is missing and how that may be overcome?
i mean, i don't usually give ANY feedback except to people i trust, respect and think they can actually take it, because there's no point giving feedback that is not taken, or giving feedback to people who are more interested in whether it reflects well on them rather than the accuracy and usefulness of the content. unlike cassandra, i'm perfectly capable of getting out of Troy and letting it burn, once it's clear no one's listening. but i used to be frank with her when i was in her team. now the paradox is that she is asking me for the same type of feedback as she used to as though i'm still part of the team, but at the same time takes offence at the same frank words that i had always used before.
the only time i ever get in trouble at work, is when i actually reply when someone asks what i think about something. i never have any problems about actual work and in fact, am best practice. you're not supposed to say "the contract is not going to work because the structure does not reward good performance", you're supposed to say "the contract's the best things anyone on earth has ever thought of and we're all so excited". you're not supposed to say, even if you can justify it, "the team is at a weak position due to vacancies and maternity leave. you are relying on one person who is very new. you should give additional attention to him and coach him on initiating and his own learning, because i think he finds it hard to tell you he is overwhelmed." you're supposed to say "everyone on your team is wonderful. they don't need any help except on these few things which will make them even more wonderful." i really don't know why i continue to say the things that get me in trouble. maybe i'm a sucker for punishment.
I use #5 frequently. I tell my friends that my close friends are the ones who tell me when I'm doing something wrong, when I'm messing up, or just any place where I'm being less than 100% optimal. I would much rather know my mistakes than have my ego sheltered. Besides, I can only inherently see things from my point of view - other viewpoints are immensely valuable!
I just learned a procedure for giving feedback as part of a training course. I can be used for both constructive- and positive feedback. Structuring genuine compliments like this is highly effective. It has four steps:
1. Describe the behavior you are giving feedback on. Refer to real happenings that can the receiver of feedback can remember.
2. Tell what effect this behavior has on you, on their customers or boss, or on their revenue.
3. Suggest improvements at the nuts-and-bolt level.
4. Ask if this feedback was useful, and what they could do with it.
If someone succeeded at constructive criticism, they probably did it like this. Still, it is risky. Generally, the messenger gets shot. I only rarely criticize people, only when I have a strong relationship with them.
In general I agree with your point about critical feedback. I have a general life policy: no unsolicited critical feedback. I've found it improves my results, in general.
(Here's some feedback for you!)
I disagree with your overall statement, "still, you probably don’t want to give critical feedback very often if ever – it almost never works."
You can either play games with people, dancing around trying to figure out if they're the kind of person who will accept or reject feedback, or you can be the person who's known for their blunt, but accurate, feedback.
I'd much rather get in trouble for giving good but unwanted feedback because sometimes someone just needs to hear it. They might not act on it right away (or ever), but you can rattle their world a little bit, and maybe they'll be more open to feedback or change later on.
But if you are more reserved about giving feedback, people who WANT to hear it might not, and people who NEED to hear it definitely won't.
Question from a reader -
Hi Sebastian, a question. I'd like to know how you came to be so... gracious. I've noticed that not only do you preach for others to spread gratitude, but you really do go over-the-top with it. It's a bit unbelieveable at times. But I have a good friend who is always very glad to see me (and everyone else). We aren't close anymore, but I always feel we are. I get the feeling you're similarly genuine. How did that come to be? Have you always been that way? I've been trying to be more thankful, but I don't want it to come off as meaningless as a forced plastic smile.
Well, first, that email totally made my day. Thank you.
Before I answer, I've got to pose a hypothetical question to you. Trust me, it's relevant:
Do you think it's more virtuous to do $5,000 worth of good for someone and get $0 in return, or to do $10,000 worth of good for someone and get $2,000 in return?
I meet with a lot of people to exchange ideas and advice. Lately I have noticed a very powerful trait that the most authentic founders, investors, and advisors exercise. I call it the "DGF Principle." Since I come from a military background, I really love acronyms. DGF stands for "Don't Give a F#$k" (aka Direct Given Feedback). Despite containing a curse word, this acronym actually connotes a very positive trait that I've noticed in the most authentic people I've come across in Silicon Valley. DGF People are not insecure and they are willing to provide direct and honest feedback to you.
People who demonstrate the DGF Principle are always mindful of your time. Out of respect for you and for the process of *becoming* an entrepreneur, they don't waste your time by giving you mixed signals or blowing sunshine up your ass. If they don't like your product, they will tell you why. If they are concerned about your market or product they will explain their rationale. If they are concerned about your team, they will communicate this to you. Sometimes their criticism might come across as being harsh, but I have found that so long as they are authentic and honest, then the feedback is constructive at worst and empowering at best. You always walk away knowing where you stand with DGF people, which frees up mental bandwidth to focus on other priorities instead of attempting to second guess them.
When I meet with fellow entrepreneurs I try my best to exercise the DGF Principle. This motivation stems from my belief that you should strive to live the Golden Rule and "treat others as you would want to be treated." Although it seems simple enough, sometimes it can be hard to exercise the DGF Principle because delivering honest feedback can often be a bit uncomfortable in the near-term. But in the long-term it is the most efficient and valuable way to exchange ideas and feedback if you're an entrepreneur, advisor, or investor.
In the past I wish more people would have just told me if they thought my product sucked or if they would NOT use it rather than sidestep the issue. Sometimes giving or receiving a 'No' can be a blessing in disguise, especially when it's wrapped in a thoughtful explanation, which provides clarity on the issue. That's why it's important to seek out authentic people to exchange ideas and advice — because they are most likely to exercise the DGF Principle.
Case in point, a few years ago when I was raising capital for a software company, I had introductions and meetings with notable investors. One investor, in particular liked our market, liked our team, and appreciated our ability to execute with product and customers. He dug in to get more information about the deal, made great introductions, provided honest feedback, and most of all — he was *fast*. He did not waste our time. When he ultimately passed on the deal, he thoughtfully explained his rationale and thanked us for considering him. To this day, I still have a great relationship with this DGF investor. In fact, I have referred him good deals and recommended him to other founders raising capital.