” By Lydia Dishman, of Fast Company”
“Susan doesn’t pull her weight. She’s always negative, people don’t like her.”
“Robert is just incompetent. Why am I asked to do my job well when he gets to skate by?”
“This department would be better off if Beth was fired, everyone knows it, what are you going to do about it?”
Tim Cole, now founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance, used to hear criticism like this regularly in a previous work environment. Tasked with taking over a department he admits had a “septic culture,” Cole stepped into a quagmire of low morale. There was legitimate debate on shutting the operation down,” he explains, “despite the contribution to profitability.”
In the case of this particular team, Cole says the focus on individual contribution eroded teamwork. “Everyone was fighting to beat the employee next to them,” he recalls, “Not only was there ineffective praise, but the default was even more damaging: ‘I win by tearing others down.’”
Although their vitriol is a pretty dramatic example, the urge to critique others and their work (or lack thereof) are far too common.
THE BRAIN SCIENCE OF CRITICISM
Julita Haber, clinical assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Fordham University, points out that focusing on the negative by being quick to criticize and slow to praise has deep roots. “Human tendency for negative bias evolved over time to help our ancestors survive by being responsive to potential threats,” Haber explains. “As such, negative stimuli in our brain are processed almost instantly.” That rapid processing ensures that the criticism will be stored in long-term memory. Positive experiences, on the other hand, have to be held in the brain for at least 12 seconds before they are absorbed in the long-term memory.
THE WORKPLACE EVOLUTION OF CRITICISM
But there are other motivations for knee-jerk criticisms. Wally Adamchik, president of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting, says that managers, in particular, may be quick to call people out. Their job is to add value and make an impact, says Adamchik, and they see criticism as a way to do that. “They are making the bad better and in doing so justifying that position of power and knowledge,” he explains.