Criticism Backfires

I have a hard time understanding where the balance between being critical of someone versus being supportive and encouraging of them lies. There are many things we all fall short with, and in many ways, what we need is not a kick in the rear, but some guidance and support to be better. However, sometimes the kick in the rear or some tough love is what people need to be spurred to action and to be pushed out of a mopey comfort zone. I generally don’t find myself to be a good judge of when we should use which approach.


Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, seems to be more supportive of the encouraging route versus the critical route. He writes, “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”


Carnegie’s quote suggest to me that I might be looking at the contrast incorrectly. Perhaps, the right approach is neither coddling nor criticizing, but understanding how to challenge people with honest feedback that highlights what is working well and what could be improved. Carnegie’s book mostly focuses on the workplace and in people management. In that setting, criticizing an employee who you need to continue working for you, but who you also need to be more productive is likely counterproductive for your own ends. Criticizing them will lead to a shut down, they won’t listen to what you have to say honestly, and will defend the decisions they made, rationalizing potentially poor choices and behaviors. Instead, Carnegie would suggest an approach that is more collaborative with the employee to help encourage them to put forward a greater effort without the need for harsh criticism or babying.


I don’t see why these relationship and motivational strategies would be limited to a work environment. I don’t know exactly how they might look at home or with a child, but I can see a team-work like strategy being more effective than pretending that major problems really are not so bad, and more effective than direct criticism of another person.

Implementation Matters

One party in the United States seems to continually chide any public sector misstep and only seems to be able to complain about the problems and waste of public sector projects and programs when discussing what the government actually does. While there are undoubtedly challenges and problems in public administration, continually complaining about and criticizing any public agency operation can have further costs to society. Good implementation in public policy matters, and one fear that seems reasonable to me, is that the constant denigration of public service will drive out creative and hard-working individuals, and worsen the very situations being criticized.


In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the importance of implementation, and how they view it differently in their system of New Localism. They write,


“At a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, [Richard] Shatten stated that, ‘being right is irrelevant to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they have impact only when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate, and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination.'”


Two things really stand out from this quote to me. The first is that good implementation is everything. Public agencies need to think about and study what will make the implementation of a program successful and need to be thoughtful of how they do the things they have been tasked with doing. Poor implementation of the perfect solution can ruin public support for that solution and can create even worse problems and greater barriers to achieving the outcomes society wants to see.


Second, good implementation relies on a strong political culture that accepts government action and helps align non-governmental actors to make implementation successful. It is not enough for private sector organizations and thought leaders to say that a policy needs to be put in place or run a certain way, they actually need to use their resources, skills, and expertise to be part of implementation. Good ideas require community efforts to become successful policy, and if a group simply stands apart, refuses to help, and cries foul at every opportunity, then implementation will of course fail, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude. There is room for criticism of government and the failures of implementation should be discussed, but we should not hinder the implementation of a program out of a prejudice against public action. Ultimately, the public action on its own, as the quote suggests, is not enough. We can’t just criticize from the sidelines, we actually need to find ways for more organizations and groups to be involved in the implementation of new programs, specifically tailored to meet the local needs of populations, businesses, and environments. Standing apart and criticizing only snowballs problems. Collaboration and cooperation among civic, private, and public organizations is the only way governance and development will be possible in the future.

New Governance

The definition for governance, according to a quick Google search is the action or manner of governing. Governance is the how behind the what. It is all about the manner and form that people and societies adopt to determine what will be legitimate in the managing, overseeing, and organizing of a society. Whenever we have a group of people, we have some type of governance in place, even if there are no formal rules, regulations, or titles among the group.


As opposed to formal constitutional governments, where the structure and rules of government and its boundaries are well defined, the idea of governance is fluid. Humans don’t have the mental capacity to think of every possible situation, combination of events, and potential conflicts that may arise within a group of people, so while government tends to set a forum for regulations and organization, governance comprises a complex web of interactions that adjust and exist in flux from situation to situation. In the United States today, as the world becomes more globalized and as dynamic cities have begun to exercise the economic muscles, governance is changing to adapt to new realities.


In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak talk about the ways governance is changing. “Governance is being driven by collaboration rather than coercion,” they write, “stewarded by diverse networks rather than by elected decision-makers alone, and characterized by iterative problem solving rather than by rigid and prescriptive rule-making.”


Governance is inherently collaborative in a democracy, and today, the collaboration needed to advance policy and drive society forward is more collaborative than in the past. Authority within a structure of governance comes from collaboration among the people with the will and the power to make decisions. In the past, authority may have come from a position or title, but today, that is not enough. We are tackling more challenging problems and adding extra dimensions to what used to be simpler problems. We have additional hurdles, additional concerns about environment and equity, and additional veto points in any decision that we make. Enhanced collaboration between diverse networks is the only way that governance can occur in the new age of local governmental power.

Loyalty and Beliefs

Loyalty in social tribes is important. If you are consistently loyal to a strong, smart, and well connected individual in a small group, you can receive a lot of direct benefits. Being disloyal, failing to conform, and only occasionally supporting the person in the social group with the highest social status will not get you the same level of benefits. In our world today we still do this, though it is probably less of a major driver of whether we pass on our genes and have enough food to eat. In the world of our tribal ancestors, however, this likely played a huge role in who was able to pass their genes along, who got to eat from the communal dinner, and who was left out in the cold when there was not enough shelter.


Our relationships involve a certain amount of loyalty, and loyalty cannot be ascertained or demonstrated by just asking someone, “to what degree are you loyal to me?” Loyalty must be demonstrated and shown in subtle indirect ways. When a wife asks, “do these jeans make me look fat?” she may really be asking how loyal and loving her husband is, as opposed to actually asking about her appearance in a pair of jeans (as a guy, I would like to note that I may be 100% dead wrong on this particular example – forgive me if I am totally missing the mark here).


In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “we often measure loyalty in our relationships by the degree to which a belief is irrational or unwarranted by the evidence.” So a group or tribe may adopt a completely irrational belief as a type of test, to see who is the most loyal and the least willing to question the leader or cut against the tribe. “It only demonstrates loyalty to believe something that we wouldn’t have reason to believe unless we were loyal.” 


I think a lot of religion includes these types of tests. I also think we see this in sports relationships, our relationships to some consumer products, and clearly in our political parties. We need coalitions to do great things or we will only make it so far. People won’t want to join our coalitions unless we can demonstrate loyalty and group belonging. Believing something clearly inaccurate is a good way to show loyalty in an indirect sort of way and to signal to others that we are on their side and have their back.