Criticism and Relativism

I’m enrolled in a semester-long leadership development class for work.  The class meets for an entire day every other week. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the class, especially since a lot of it seemed touchy-feely.  My opinion has changed, and I’m really enjoying the content as well as trying to engage with it thoughtfully.  A major part of the class is that we were required to solicit feedback on our leadership performance from our direct reports, supervisor and peers via a 360 degree evaluation. I dutifully asked people to participate, trying to select coworkers who would give me useful, honest feedback.  Out of 12 people (including myself), I had 10 complete the survey.  We received the results last week.

To say I was nervous about the results would be an understatement.  The facilitator made us wait until the end of the day to receive the results of our survey and introduced it with a session on perception vs. reality, how to interpret results and comments, etc.  The more she talked, the higher my anxiety level became and the more my stomach churned in anticipation of my results. I suddenly was certain that the comment sections of my evaluation would be full of “KeAnne sucks” or “KeAnne is an insufferable know-it-all” comments.

The most positive thing I can say about my results is that I am decently self-aware because I correctly anticipated many of my weak areas: defensive, sensitive to criticism, etc.  I was surprised by a series of ratings and comments that I easily identified as coming from one person; one coworker has a depth of frustration and irritation with me that was a huge shock to me.  I consider myself to be a fairly observant person, but that person’s perception of me and my leadership style stunned me. On the other hand, I thought some of the comments were too nice and not honest enough.

Nevertheless, I’m taking all of the feedback and ratings seriously and humbly, vowing to improve the areas that need improving.

I’ve thought a lot about the feedback I received on that evaluation.  Some of it hurt a lot, and I had to hold back tears as I left class.  Partly because it came from coworkers whose opinions I value and partly because some of it seemed so bizarre. Was that really how people see me?

Why do we find it so difficult and downright unpleasant to receive criticism?  The definition of criticism is the practice of finding fault or merit in an articulate way.  Of course, the criticism that stings the most is the negative criticism. I think a lot of my less-than-stellar behaviors stem from my desire to be perfect.  I’ve always wanted to be perfect even though I understand that it is impossible.  I want to do the best job.  I want to be above reproach.  Again, these are all impossible, ridiculous outcomes.  No one is perfect.  We’re always going to be liked by some and disliked by others on factors both within and outside our control. Yet, that desire for perfection, of pleasing remains. And any questioning of me or my thought process makes me defensive.  It also doesn’t help that I can be snarky (who, me?) and a bit aggressive and strident at times.

The older I become, the more I believe that everything and everyone is relative.  We’re all individual galaxies spinning next to each other but ultimately self-contained and doing our own thing.  I don’t like that.  I always believed somewhat Platonically that there were some absolutes governing our world and existence.

Perhaps criticism is poorly received because as an act of evaluation, it reminds us that we aren’t alone, that others are free to observe us, evaluate what we do and say and comment negatively or positively. Criticism ties us to each other and dispels some of the relativism we may feel.

The blogosphere highlights just how much we despise criticism.  We blithely set up blogs to share our lives with the world.  We often refer to our blogs as our little worlds.  We say we want dialogue and interaction with readers, yet recent kerfuffles over GOMI and blow ups in comment sections in several blogs I read demonstrate that most of the time, we have very thin skin.  I’m not talking about comments like “you suck” or “you’re a fat cow who never showers.  I bet you smell.”  Those comments are just mean. I’m talking about comments that dissent or question what we’ve shared.

Psychologists recommend the following for offering criticism:

Respect the individual, focus the criticism on the behaviour that needs changing – on what people actually do or actually say.

The problem is that too often we associate criticism of our behavior or words as an attack on us as individuals. As a result, comment sections are shut down and critical comments are deleted.  What comments remain are either affirming  or the lukewarm, “you have to do what works for you.” We even indignantly reply that those sort of comments are not allowed in our space, in our part of the blogosphere. Relativism is upheld, and our little worlds keep spinning as we create our own truths and never question them.


  1. oooh. great great stuff here. I may need to come back with a deeper comment. what struck me was the idea of relativism—for myself, I work so hard at “self-improvement” and get such satisfaction from reaching my own self-imposed goals. But I think very little of how my actions appear to and affect others outside of my immediate family. Saying no to extra projects at work? Probably pissing someone off! Delegating more? Same. Limiting my social obligations & letting go of less positive relationships—hurt feelings I’m sure. As I grow more confident and less people-pleasing, I’m sure I come across more bitchy. On the one hand, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but on the other hand, its good to be self-aware of how you are coming across to the wider world.

  2. ANOTHER fabulously insightful post! I agree with you about this … as much as we claim to invite dialogue, we shrink from the comments that actually challenge us to think differently. I think it happens IRL, too: we tend to associate with people who will support us, not people who will offer alternative perspectives, or who will gently point out our flaws. Even “I don’t like that behavior” feels like “I don’t like YOU.”

    I wonder if there is a cultural need for approbation, in a way that didn’t exist before? I feel like it’s become even more prevalent with the rise of social media. So many people (me included, sometimes) seem to need their egos stroked ALL.THE.TIME, and fear confrontation. Have we lost our ability to be civil enough with each other that we can offer criticism without it feeling like an attack?

    Great question.

  3. I can’t even form coherent thoughts to respond to this other than to say HELL YEAH. We need objective constructive criticism or we won’t improve.

    I think the issue with blogging, however, is that I don’t want criticism in my space. I’m sharing my tiny adventures in life, so I don’t want someone criticizing the things I choose to share. It’s just one small slice of a much larger life. I’m not out to make money from blogging or advertise, I just want a space to tell the grandparents about the kids. Yet I still get crazy town comments.

    For example, when I posted recently about my kids getting some homework that sucked for me as a parent? Some person went off in the comments, lots of judgement about our school. Why is a homework assignment, not controlled by me, something to judge in my life? And why are you judging me because I make my kids do homework? When did it become acceptable to NOT do homework? And also, it was supposed to be a cute story about Nate writing a letter calling someone “petty” instead of “pretty” so crazy town lady missed the entire point.

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