December 12

Surrounded by negativity and criticism?

    Surroundedby negativity and criticism_
    Here’s a joke for you: What’s the only thing that two academics can agree on? That a third academic is clueless.

    We often live and work in surprisingly critical environments. When two people in our office get together, chances are that within two minutes, they’ll be bad-mouthing someone else.

    “Did you see that article he just wrote? Those methods were completely flawed.”

    “I can’t believe she got a way with making such huge, sweeping statements that have absolutely no basis in fact.”

    “I bet he didn’t even run spellcheck, that chapter was so bad.”

    “There’s no way that piece should have been published. It’s total garbage.”

    Worse, it doesn’t take much for a criticism of someone’s work to switch seamlessly into bashing that person’s character. Before long, an author who writes with circular logic becomes someone who’s a selfish, egotistical jerk. And everyone in the room just nods along.

    Maybe you’re one of the few who doesn’t nod along while others are being criticized, but do you put a stop to it? Do you walk out of the room? Or do you simply sit and listen?

    Whether you participate in criticizing others or just listen to the criticisms, the negativity still impacts your own psyche and your ability to create. All of those judgmental comments tend to boomerang back at you, and you find yourself wondering, “Are my methods flawed? Am I making huge, sweeping statements? Is my grammar and spelling terrible?” Your inner critic begins to apply those same standards to your own work.

    Too much criticism prevents others from improving themselves.

    Studies have shown that when you criticize another person, when you focus solely on his negative attributes, you actually make it more difficult for him to think about how to improve (Boyatzis & Akrivou 2006). So, if a mentor points out to her mentee all the ways in which his most recent writing was terrible, his anxiety and defensiveness will actually hinder his ability to consider ways to improve his writing.

    Boyatzis at the Weatherhead School of Management found that focusing on someone’s aspirations engages his cognition toward improvement, but harping on what he needs to fix in his work actually causes a cognitive shut down. Essentially, “talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down” (Boyatzis & Akrivou 2006).

    And the same is true for yourself.

    If you focus on your own areas of inadequacy (“My grammar is awful. I have a hard time writing logically and coherently. I bet no one understands the point I’m trying to make.”), you cognitively shut down. You retreat from all the ways you could become a better writer, and you succumb to all the ways in which you’re not as good a writer as you want to be. You sabotage your own possibility for improvement.

    Participating in a negative, critical environment is harmful for everyone involved.

    If you find yourself nodding along as your colleagues bash others’ work, you’re contributing to an environment that is absolutely poisonous for everyone.

    Those criticisms aren’t helpful for the author that you’re talking about. Even if the author were in the room, and such statements were delivered as “constructive criticism,” blanket statements of how much the author needs to fix about her writing, her anxiety and defensiveness would make it cognitively impossible to focus on how to improve.

    The negative conversation encourages you to dwell on all the ways in which your own writing is insufficient, and you will cognitively close down.

    And you can bet that the other people in the room with you will go back to their own offices and dwell in self-doubt, as well.

    What an awful cycle of criticism to perpetuate.

    How do you break free of the cycle of criticism?

    Refuse to participate, not out of a judgmental spirit, but out of a desire to be positive and encouraging to everyone. When someone bashes the logical structure of another author’s paper, you can be the one to say, “Yes, he probably could have streamlined that argument a bit, but his general point was actually really thought-provoking. I bet you could spin off an interesting paper from that premise.” Take any chance you can to steer the conversation back to a constructive, positive note.

    And when the criticism turns to all-out character bashing, maybe that’s a good time to find your way to the coffee pot and then discreetly back to your own office. If you want to preserve your own psyche, self-worth, and ability to improve your own work, steer clear of that negative environment – it’s not good for anyone.

    It’s true that not all criticism is bad. Even Boyatzis said that “you need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.” Still, I’m willing to bet that we tend to err very far to the side of too much negativity. Let’s concentrate on bringing some positivity back into the equation to balance things out.

    How about you?

    How do you deal with critical environments? Do you find yourself participating? Do you have any advice for how to break the cycle of criticism?


    Boyatzis, R.E. & Akrivou, K. (2006). The ideal self as a driver of change. Journal of Management Development. 25(7), 624-642.


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