Conventional says that people are bad at hearing critical feedback simply because their egos get in the way, but I think there’s more to it.
Criticism depletes our mojo, (our confidence, enthusiasm and optimism) and mojo fuels our productivity. We all need our mojo. We don't work half as creatively or effectively without it. Criticism pops a hole in our mojo fuel tank. Naturally, we're quick to deflect the puncture or patch the hole.
Then there’s the question of how big a hole the criticism is popping in our fuel tanks. Simplifying, the holes come in two sizes, small and large, a critique within our productive work vs. a critique of our whole enterprise:
Small: Is he saying he doesn’t understand this passage in my writing so I should fix it?Large: Is he saying I’m a bad writer?
Small: Is she saying I need to adjust my tone so I’m a more effective parent?Large: Is she saying I’m a bad parent?
Small: Are they saying I need to improve within my field?Large: Are they saying I am in the wrong field and should change careers.
Small: Are they saying there’s something to fix within my theory?Large: Are they saying my theory is fundamentally flawed and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Most of us harbor small and large doubts about our efforts already, internal critiques, the voices inside our heads saying we’re doing the thing wrong or, more broadly, doing the wrong thing, making mistakes within our pursuit or engaged in the wrong pursuit.
We can think of these internal doubts as thin spots on the walls of our mojo fuel tanks, vulnerabilities to outside voices that might take us over the line into doubts we’re already trying to keep at bay so we can get on with our work.
It’s often hard to tell whether outside criticism is focused on the small or large vulnerabilities. A tactful critic might focus on the small, biting his tongue, and making you wonder, “Is he really saying that I’m just not cut out for this line of work?”
Often critics are insensitive in their delivery or have bitten their tongue so long that when they finally tell you what they think they’re pent up and exaggerate in ways that make their criticism sound as if it’s of your overall abilities not some smaller aspect of it.
And our tanks can be especially thin-skinned on the big picture doubts, so even if they’re careful to focus on the small we take it as about the larger issue.
“I think you could try being more receptive when our child is talking.”
“Oh, so you think I’m a lousy parent, do you?”
And sometimes we’re right to interpret smaller criticisms as pointing to a larger one. Look at all the misguided campaigns in the world. Obviously some of us are barking up the wrong tree altogether. If only people would just put two and two together and finally see that the small criticisms add up to evidence there’s something wrong with their whole approach: Time to go back to the drawing board.
Our resistance to feedback can also manifest as turning the small criticism large. If you want to shut up a critic, just exaggerate his criticism, shaming him into silence.
We get opposite advice on what to do about criticism. One side says, always be open to it. Get your ego out of the way. The other side says stick to your guns, drive forward, don’t care what other people think.
Independently each of these opposites is lousy advice, but help in tension with each other they’re good advice. You want your mojo when you’re going about things the right way and going about the right things. And you want to be open to challenges to your mojo when you’re going about things the wrong way or going about the wrong things.
In other words, when it’s best to just keep doing what you’re doing, be deflective, even defensive against challenges to what you’re doing. And when it’s best to make adjustments, small or large, be open to challenges to what you’re doing. We’re sorry that Hitler was so bad at adjusting to criticism of his mission. We’re glad that Martin Luther King was equally bad at adjusting criticism of his mission. Don’t be closed-minded, but don’t be wishy-washy either.
To do this, see not just the benefits but the costs of receptivity. Sure, criticism is hard on our egos, but more than it’s hard on our productivity. The more your attention is taken up with wondering whether you’re failing, the less mojo you have for doing what you’re doing.