Righteous smugness is such a nice feeling. No seriously. Who hasn’t enjoyed that feeling when witnessing someone else’s seeming incompetence? When your order gets botched, how eager are you to disparage the first customer service rep. who gets to handle your issue?
But those feelings end up biting us back.
Criticising People who ‘Matter’
I spend most of my work days dealing with computers. Recently I had to troubleshoot a photo booth computer that did not recognize its video camera. I mailed the computer to the booth vendor for repair. A few weeks later they returned it to me saying the problem was fixed. I put the computer back into the photo booth, and to my disappointment it still did not recognize the camera. I emailed them that it still didn’t work. The vendor started to get defensive: he replied that he did a full diagnostic and it was working fine there and the problem must be on my end. I could tell from his tone that things were about to get sour. Faced with a repair bill, a non-functional computer and a looming deadline I got upset. I started imagining different critical replies I could send.
A withering response would’ve felt gratifying—it is what I wanted to do— but it would have damaged the relationship with the vendor. So instead, I appealed to his expertise. I replied, “Thanks for your prompt response. I’m baffled and unsure of my next steps… what could have caused this error to recur immediately upon me hooking it up to our booth? You are the expert with these units… any theories?” The next morning I got a reply from him, “make sure the video card is in tight… it could have come loose”. Sure enough that fixed it!
Brains are better at solving problems when relaxed.1 When you are upset, your brain becomes extremely focused on the upset— using less of your brain— making problem solving harder. Ever noticed how poorly you solve problems when you are angry?
The vendor was a critical player in achieving my goal of a working photo booth. While it is nice to think about kindness for moralistic reasons, there was a practical and self-serving reason for being kind: I needed his clear thinking. Laying in to him would have hurt my goal. Acknowledging his expertise (even when things didn’t appear that way to me) kept him relaxed so he could best mull over my problem. Laying in to him would have made me culpable (or perhaps even solely responsible) for the failure to achieve my own goal.
Criticising People who ‘Don’t Matter’
So disparaging someone who is important for your own goals does you a disservice. What of people who aren’t important to your own goals?
Expectations become like blinders, concealing from us everything that does not match our expectations2. Your perception of incompetence, no matter how right it may seem, is only a small slice of what is true of any person or situation. Expect someone to be incompetent and you will fail to see the ways they are competent. Your negative regard for them hinders them from redeeming themselves, blinds you to their good traits and habituates you to seeing more of the same in others. Your perceived world is the result of your expectations. You-create-your-reality— that shallow, ostensibly naïve New Age saw— is validated by psychology.
When Criticism Works
Criticism seems to have more downside than up, even when kept to yourself. This does not mean criticism has no upside, it means that criticism is best done responsibly. When you do criticize someone, it should be immediately followed with a way to redeem the situation. Essentially: ‘here’s what doesn’t work in this situation, and here’s what will make things workable’. The ‘redemption’ may be something on their end, or it may be on your end. If it is on their end, have it take the form of a request: “can you figure out why my computer is still failing?” If it is on your end, have it be in the form of a promise: “I promise to have a sense of humor about situations like these, rather than seeing only trouble”.