Leverage Criticism into Improvement

Sal and Emily

Sal, a heavy-set technician in his mid-fifties, was leaning back in the uncomfortable office chair, with his tree-trunk arms crossed across his thick chest, and his face red.

“I don’t think I have to listen to this. Is this your role now?” He demanded, in a low but sharp voice.

Emily was Sal’s newly-minted supervisor, and had barely broken out of her 20’s. She sat across from Sal. She fidgeted as she spoke, arranging and rearranging papers on her desk.

“Sal, I’m just saying that mistakes were made, okay? And we need to–“

“I already told you,” Sal interrupted, “and I told Jake too. It wasn’t my fault. The UI is unstable, not to mention the servers! Don’t you know that 2008 R2 is losing support soon? I brought it up in the morning meeting. This could have happened to anyone. I don’t understand why I’m getting the blame, I’m just the poor bastard who was logged in.”

“It’s a pattern, Sal. Jake has said the same thing.”

“A pattern? There are explanations for everything, okay? I mean, I don’t know. I’ve already told you all of that. What do you want?”

“I just want to talk about how we can prevent this sort of thing from happening going forward. I want to have a discussion–“

“How to ‘prevent this thing going forward’? I’ll tell you how, Emily. Fix your damn servers. Are we done?”

Without waiting for an answer, Sal stood up and stomped out.

Responding to Criticism

“It’s not really her fault.” Jake said, taking another bit of his pizza.

Sal just stared down at his. The little restaurant allowed patrons to specify their own toppings on their personal pizzas. Sal had ordered mushroom, chicken, and spinach with Alfredo sauce, rather than the standard tomato.

It had sounded great at the time, and it still smelled pretty good, but Sal just didn’t have much of an appetite.

“I mean maybe she could have worded things a little better but I doubt it.” Jake shrugged and took another bite. “Emily’s not 100% yet but she has potential, and I trust her. Honestly, Sal, it’s not her fault if you can’t take criticism.”

“I can take criticism.” Sal said defensively.

Jake laughed. “Sure, sure. When?”

Sal scoffed, and picked a mushroom of his pizza with a fork. He examined it, trying to coax his usually-large appetite. Jake’s pizza, meanwhile, was almost gone.

“Look, Sal. Whether you like it or not, Emily is running the show now. She’s a good egg, and can bring some much needed change to this department. You’ve got a few options. You can learn to work with her functionally, or, I dunno, maybe we can find somewhere else for you. But that’s not gonna look good on you, you know that.”

“She was attacking me, Jake. You don’t know what that’s like.”

“No, no, no.” Jake said, wiping his hands on napkin. “I know you feel that way, Sal. But she’s just doing her job. When the crap hits the AC, she’s the one who’s going to have to account for it, not you. She see’s a pattern with you, and she wants to help you fix it.

“That doesn’t mean she wants you out, Sal. You’ve worked with her before, you two even seemed to get along. She’s not out to get you, but she doesn’t want to have to pay for your mistakes if something happens, and I think you can understand that.” He shrugged again. “She wants to help you, but it’s your choice if you want to accept that or not.”

“I suppose…” Sal muttered.

Turning Criticism into Goals

“Here’s what you do.” Jake said. “You make a list of the mistakes that Emily was trying to adress. Things like the firewall rules, the switch config out in West Jordan, the user provisioning, etc.

“Now you may think that those weren’t really your fault, but you were the one at the wheel, right? So analyze each of those issues and ask yourself:

  1. What you could have done differently? Is there any reason her criticism might be justified?
  2. Are you lacking knowledge or skills in those areas?
  3. If so, how could your increase your knowledge or skills?
  4. What can Emily do to help you? Pretend like “nothing” is not an acceptable answer
  5. What else can you do to turn those weaknesses into strengths?

“Once you’ve answered those questions, then you have goals–“

Unjustified Criticism

“Hold on. What if her criticisms aren’t justified? You expect me to own up to something that wasn’t my fault?”

“No, of course not. But you should still ask yourself those questions. You’ll make much more of an impact if, rather than getting all defensive, you can say something like ‘I hear what you’re saying, Emily, and I understand why you think that. There were other circumstances that caused that issue, but I’m going to be doing more research into that error, and see if there’s any patches or updates that can prevent that from happening again.

“Make sure you have evidence to back it up, too. If you can find records of ‘known issues’, or other instances of people who are having the same problems, that would go a long way to show – not just that you’re ‘innocent’, but that you’re taking the issue seriously.

“You are the administrator for those systems, Sal, so that’s kind of your job anyways. I’m not asking you to do any extra work. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Turning Goals into Plans

“Good. Now, the next step is to turn those goals into plans. Create a timeline. If you need to read a book or take a class, how long will that take? What can you use as milestones? How can you demonstrate improved performance?”

“This sounds like a performance improvement plan.” Sal scoffed.

“It is! Except you’re making it yourself. When you get criticism, Sal, the worst thing you can do is get defensive. That tells Emily that you don’t trust her, that you refuse to acknowledge your weaknesses, and that you have no intention to change.

“However, if you take a more proactive approach, you’re sending the opposite message: you respect her oppinion, you aknowledge that you have some opportunities to improve, and you intend to take advantage of those opportunities. You hear what I’m saying?”

“Yeah I guess.”

“Do you think you can do that, Sal?”

“Yeah, I can.”

“I knew it! Ya see, Sal? You’re a good egg too.”

“I suppose I owe Emily an apology, too, don’t I?”

Jake smiled. “I suppose you do.”

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