FreedBack (Free Feedback): And why criticism is good!
Being OK with criticism. It means people care.
In my 20s I was not OK with criticism, especially when it came from random people criticizing the civil rights organization where I worked. It was even worse when the very people we were serving were lobbing verbal bombs at us at events or in our community newspaper. If I am being honest with myself, defensiveness is something I still struggle with to this day (and I know I am not alone!)
These are the things I would literally say out loud: “Why aren’t they more appreciative?” “How dare they?” “We work so hard; don’t they understand the sacrifices we make for THEM?”
If you’re lucky, you are very invested in your work, whatever it is. In social justice nonprofits, it feels deeply personal. We work long hours for crappy pay and nothing ever seems good enough. Even 10 emails of praise don’t take away the sting of that one critical letter to the editor or bad review online. Why don’t people see what we see?
I believe one thing that leads to burnout is the feeling that your work isn’t valued or appreciated. This is intensified for activists, political organizers, volunteers, and people working at the most challenging intersections of our culture. It’s no wonder I was facing burnout at 26. No matter how hard my small civil rights organization worked, it always seemed like the minority of voices (haters) got the best of me. I wasn’t prepared for resilience. I was trained for anger and that was what my impulse was.
In my mid-30s I had a reckoning. I went through a very public and very painful experience where my organizations and I were pilloried. It was sudden, unexpected, and I didn’t have the emotional resilience to face the storm head-on. In the end, my organization was vindicated but my emotional bruises felt like lacerations. I wanted to recoil from public advocacy and just not try that hard ever again. It was only after I hired and worked with a coach to build back my confidence, and uncover my blind spots, that I began to heal from the whole ordeal.
Within just a few months, my entire attitude changed. I was hungry for feedback and constructive criticism anywhere I could find it. I used to find comfort in the praise, accolades, and positive annual reviews but they were really just a false reality. I wanted the rose colored glasses. Now I was hungry to be better and do better and that also meant hearing things that were unpleasant. It meant that if I really wanted to be better, I would have to change things about myself, my way of working, and potentially many other things to which I had grown attached. Sometimes it hurts to heal, and I knew this could hurt.
The shift came when I just let go of trying to be liked or perfect. I didn’t have to know everything (and I certainly didn’t) and I owed it to myself, my constituents, and my organizations to improve constantly. It meant that I had to create the conditions for people to bring me feedback.
Feedback is free. Instead of resisting it, welcome it. For some people this is easy. For others, they need to emotionally brace themselves for hearing some or lots of criticism.
I remember hearing a podcast once where a business consultant was chastising a big telecom company for wasting money doing “research” to find out what their customers thought of them. The consultant said, “Why spend a million dollars hunting this down? You have a hotline where you are getting free feedback on your performance every day. People are yelling at you online and on the phone daily. This is free data!”
I was transfixed. It was so simple and so perfect. If we open ourselves to it, input, feedback, and constructive criticism are readily available, but we have to let it in. Some people resist conflict and don’t want to offer feedback for fear it will be dismissed, met with anger, or result in consequences. If you are a leader who actually wants feedback you need to fix that. Openly tell your board, team, and loved ones that you are eager to hear feedback and that you will resist the temptation to be defensive. Then actually do what you promised.
Free feedback, or “Freedback”, can be a powerful tool for leadership and continual improvement. Does your organization have a built-in feedback look that allows you to not just evaluate your programs but everything that matters in your organization? Does your board evaluate itself? Do your workers evaluate themselves? Do they get to evaluate the boss?
Organizations that are constantly learning and hungry for feedback are more sophisticated, mature, and resilient for the world ahead. Are you ready for that challenge?