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Quit Being a Critic and Go Create Something

Anton Ego from RatatouilleIn my line of work, I’m exposed to a fair number of critics.  Whether it’s comments on this blog, reviews of my book, or critiques of my performance as a speaker, there is no shortage of criticism of my work.  Some is glowing.  Some is marginal.  Some is downright ugly.

As leaders, we’re often in a position where our opinions and criticism carry great weight and those perspectives can positively and negatively affect the lives of those around us.  Unfortunately we’re not always careful with our criticism nor are we mindful of the corresponding responsibilities that go along with our words.

I’ve been meaning to write this post since about 2008 (okay… so I got a little behind in my work).  The Disney Pixar movie Ratatouille came out around that time (and if you haven’t seen it, you MUST!).  One villain in the movie is Anton Ego – the food critic.  Hell-bent on taking down Gusteau’s restaurant, Ego makes a point of going out of his way to stage a dramatic food tasting with the intent of writing a final scathing review that dooms Gusteau’s to irrelevance once and for all.

Anyone who has seen the movie knows Ego is blown away by the meal he enjoys there.  To his amazement and chagrin, he realizes he must write a review worthy of the wonderful meal he was served.  The beginning of his review was poignant and carries a lesson for all of us:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

In an age where we can all be critics, whether it’s in blog post comments, on our own websites, on twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Amazon, or anywhere else we can share our ideas and opinions, the importance of understanding our responsibility as a critic is great.  Yet we often ignore this responsibility and blast away at the object of our derision with little thought for the implications of our actions.  Well allow me to offer a challenge for all of us to aspire to be something more than a simple critic…

My question to you is are you a critic or a creator?

As a leader, it’s easy for you to rain down criticism upon the work of others.  You don’t do the work – you simply set the direction for the work to be done, define the performance standards, and judge the quality of the work after it is completed.  Like it or not, you’re a professional critic.

What you must understand is your criticism carries weight.  It impacts the performance reviews of your people.  It determines whether a supplier wins a contract or gets booted.  It shapes the perspective on whether someone gets promoted or not.  You get the picture – your words change lives.

I invite you to go a step beyond simple criticism.  Help build something beyond your words.  Instead of simply designating something as crap, offer constructive thoughts on how to improve it.  Give people the coaching, feedback, and resources to improve their average pieces of junk.  Identify opportunities to connect ideas and people so they can build something greater.  Be part of the solution rather than simply pointing out the problem.

Better yet, change your mindset from one of critic to one of creator.  Instead of looking at your job responsibilities as only setting direction and judging the work of others, spend time with your team creating new ideas.  Roll up your sleeves, make your own contributions to that idea, and be open to your work being judged by others.  It’s risky.  Our insecurities hold us back and relegate us to the safe world of the critic rather than allowing us to take the chance of creating an average piece of junk.

If you’re not up for being a creator, at least be willing to put yourself out there to support and defend new ideas.  Don’t simply follow the crowd and their opinion of something.  Form your own independent thoughts and stand behind those beliefs.  Don’t bow to the criticism of other critics who might criticize you (wow… stop and think that one through).  It’s hard enough to create something new for those poor souls who subject themselves to the criticism of the world.  I’m sure they would welcome your support, encouragement, and suggestions.

Leadership is about being out in front and taking others to new places.  You can’t lead if you simply follow the conventional wisdom because it’s safe.  So the next time you consider dropping a criticism bomb on the work of another, I invite you to consider the feelings of that individual, the effort they put into creating that work, the risk they’re taking in subjecting it to judgment, and the hopes and dreams they have tied up in the idea.  After you’ve considered those things, then render your criticism appropriately and try to go beyond judgment and become a co-creator yourself.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

- I humbly subject my creations to your criticism (but be gentle and professional please).  I’d love your thoughts on both this blog/its posts as well as my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. I hope you enjoy both.

26 Responses to “Quit Being a Critic and Go Create Something”

  1. Duane Penzien says:

    Another issue with being critical of the efforts of others without being having input on a solution is that you risk becoming irrelevant to the people you lead. It is very important to take a step back and think about what you are doing and how things might be improved before opening your mouth in judgement.

    For an example, consider the following: a few years ago, an executive in the firm I work for visited a customer site where things had gone very poorly during a recent project. This person scheduled an urgent conference call in which he spent 15 minutes lambasting the entire field team based on what he heard from one customer, then ended the call. No suggestions for improvement, no consideration of all of the customers who were extremely satisfied with our work – nothing about correcting the situation at all. I can certainly believe he was very upset at the time and demonstrated poor judgement in doing what he did, but there was no apology and no real change of behavior in subsequent calls.

    The unintended consequence of such behavior is that many of us soon formed our own judgement – that the opinions of that person were not useful in our mission of having excellent customer relationships, so why waste time paying attention to them?

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Great thoughts (as usual) Duane. When are you going to write a guest blog post for me? Seriously. Drop me a note. I would love to share your thoughts more prominently with our readers.

  2. Dawn says:

    Mike,

    Possibly your best post–ever. My team and I are in the compliance business, and it is so easy to slip into the critic role. Society’s tendency to criticize first and think second, especially when using social media, has been on my mind lately and your post summarizes the issue perfectly. I had to share this the team. Thank You!

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I don’t know about best post *ever* but I am happy with this one. Great notion that even compliance folks can create! Thanks for sharing it with others.

  3. Hammed Olufadi says:

    Dear Mike,
    Thanks immensely for your blog post. I know from experience that criticism is cheap especially the destructive type. It has demoralized me more than I can remember in my professional life. Rolling up your sleeve and engaging your team is the real deal in leadership.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      You’re welcome and thanks for reading. Given your experiences, I’d encourage you to be one of those leaders who offers ideas instead of criticisms. We can change things one person at a time.

  4. Mike,

    You make a great point. I hope many leaders take this to heart and truly get on board with their team. It truly is harder to create than to critique.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      If only… All we can do is point these things out and encourage those around us to take this approach. I’m just as guilty as the next person of offering criticism versus ideas but at least I’ve got a goal I can try to achieve in reversing that dynamic. Thanks for reading!

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    • Jason says:

      On point, Mike! In our job as Army Observer Coach / Trainers at your National Training Center, we never point out an issue without [helping the observed unit] identify “A Way” to fix the issue and to identify who is going to enact the “fix.” The After Action Review (AAR) model remains tried and true:
      1. What happened [define effect]?
      2. What was supposed to happen?
      3. Why did the operation go as it did [define cause]?
      4. How [& importantly who] is going to fix the issue for next time?
      Train the Force!!
      Jason Kirk
      Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army

  8. Anonymous says:

    Creators are few and unique so do leaders. If you give a leader one problem he will bring you ten solutions, but if you give the same one issue to critics you will end up with ten questions or criticism. The ideas you staging up is both very pertinent and useful. Keep it up Mike. Hope one day all leaders will read it.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      I love the 10 to 1 rule on ideas versus criticisms. Seems like a good measuring stick to hold ourselves to. Thanks for reading and please share the post with others who need to either hear the message or who will help spread the message.

  9. Chery says:

    This is an exceptionally well stated post. Our society seems to play “gotcha” too much these days. “Conversation” has deteriorated into sequential facebook posts where each author tries to one-up their counterpart by pointing out logical fallacies or criticizing their beliefs and opinions.

    Leadership requires a commitment to quality dialogue and an ability to acknowledge someone’s position or work product and then ask the “what if” questions to elevate the entire exercise to a higher place for the greater good. This is true in my career in public service, but I think it just as applicable in our civic life and in any other career.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Spot on! I encourage you to elevate the conversation and help those around you do the same. Thanks for reading!

  10. Mike,

    Thanks. Years ago at Hallmark Gordan MacKenzie took the title Creative Paradox and was charged with keeping the creativity of the company in tip top shape. He explained that one of the main things he did was listen to people’s ideas and tell them they were good. And it worked–inspiring people to take the next step.

    New ideas are magnets for negative criticism that can kill creativity. Thanks for reminding us to not prematurely squelching innovative ideas before they have the chance to germinate. Gordan, who passed a way, is smiling down on you.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for sharing Gordan’s story. It’s inspiring to hear about others who have been successful with this approach. Thanks for reading!

  11. Ian Fetigan says:

    Excellent article! A must read for everyone in a leadership position!

  12. Outstanding article! Do you mind if I post it in my blog at http://alby59.wordpress.com/?

  13. Wilson Zorn says:

    I find this knee-jerk condemnation of the critic as opposed to the creator to be quite distressing.

    Yes, the BAD critic merely condemns and adds little or nothing.

    Yes, the GOOD creator blesses us with progress.

    But where would the American republic’s Founding Fathers, the consummate “doers,” be without the critiques that launched and sustain the Enlightenment? Where would modern society be without Marx and Weber, who could as easily be dismissed as “mere” critics?

    The article starts to make an important point about the responsibility of the critic, but gets diverted into suddenly asking “are you a creator or a critic” as if the former were necessarily better, and is if the latter were some crime.

    I contend we’d not have suffered the great 2008 Fiscal Crisis had people made more attention to critics than creators…

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Wilson. Allow me to make a distinction – I see creators as people who don’t just criticize but as people who actually DO something about it. Under that definition, Marx is more of a creator for example – he criticized the existing system, created new ideas, and spread them to affect change ergo not a critic. Creators take criticism past the stage of simply pointing out something is bad – they advance the conversation to make changes happen. Given that, I can’t say I agree with your points (especially about the financial crisis). To sit there and decry what people are doing wrong but not offer solutions/changes and push for them to happen, the critics relegate themselves to being spectators to the bus going over the cliff instead of screaming we’re going the wrong way and helping turn the wheel. Thoughts are nice but actions matter and yes – I do contend the actions matter more than the words. Without the creators, the critics wouldn’t have anything to talk about and they would be out of a job. I’m not saying being a critic is a crime. I’m saying it’s a higher calling to go beyond criticism and help change things versus simply saying things suck.

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