Category Archives: Innovation

Haters gon’ Hate – On dealing with criticism

pearls of wisdom web

After hanging around the social media for a while, I’ve noticed that the word ‘hater’ is often brandished especially in Instagram. As in a person is a ‘hater’ if they offer any kind of criticism or comments that can be construed as ‘negativity’, almost to the point that everyone who is not an admirer or a fan, is a hater. In fact it appears that in the universe of IG, ‘hater’ overlaps with ‘buzzkill’ a lot. Also the New York Times ran a piece on ‘how to deal with the haters‘, with a video of ‘hating’ comments that did not seem all that hateful. The reason I am ‘hating’ on this newly established use of the word, is it inflates the emotional depth of the word and is frankly quite puerile and unfitting in many instances. However, it’s not all hate, I’m going to reward the reader with the stamina to endure this diatribe with some suggestions to work with criticism.

First of all, rest assured, practically none I’ve seen labeled a hater in for example IG is not, in the sense of the word I’ve learned. ‘Hate’ is intense visceral dislike, loathing, up to and including total abhorrence and revulsion. That is not a feeling that comes through in a garden variety social media interaction. If you have even seen true unabashed hatred; the murderous glint in their dilated pupils, the revolted wrinkles around their mouth, and the abject stone-cold loathing in the words only coming through their clenched teeth, you’ll never mix everyday criticism, cynical quips, slight slurs, and garden-variety trolling for that.

To put things into perspective: Klansmen are ‘haters’ towards certain groups of people. People who ask whether or not one might spend just a touch too much thinking about their macro nutrients or whether ones musculo-skeletal system is well balanced and aesthetically pleasing, or whether they themselves think their recent blog post was a bit insipid and perhaps had the intellectual depth of a paddling pool, are not.

Mixing the genuine article with everyday ill-informed, plain unhelpful, or inconsiderate feedback just serves to derail attention from any potential insights and potential real issues to the tone of the feedback, which is in fact constitutes the informal logical fallacy called the ‘tone argument’  or ‘style over substance’, i.e. judging the validity of ones utterances based on the tone and wording, and not the factual and logical merit of the argument.

Anyone who steps into the public sphere by publishing anything in the social media or writing a blog or doing some professional work, will face potentially countless uncaring, unthoughtful, rude, bitter, resentful, or jealous people, or just people who have a completely different opinion on things, different sets of values and goals, different struggles and grievances, hopes and dreams, and different standards. You need to also remember that people are roughly ten times as likely to complain than to leave positive or encouraging feedback. And to be fair, occasionally there might be a bona fide hater in the bunch as well. Regrettably such is life. In the last case, it is best to report that person to proper authorities and not engage.

What you need to realize, is that anything is ever good or bad in reference to a set of values, goals, and other criteria.  To take a couple of examples: a powerlifter couldn’t care less how many burpees in a minute you can do, or how skinny you are, but will respect you for deadlifting triple bodyweight. A gallery visitor will not necessarily like your work, if it does not appeal to their sense of aesthetics, or if you combat their politics. You will not be thanked in a community for announcing that The Greater Good demands that you build a wind farm in their back yard. And so on. And of course in the case of resentfulness, jealousy, and bitterness, there is likely some past on on-going struggle that has clouded those persons’ judgment, and that feedback may tell more about them than you.

Further absent from the discussion is the insidious risk that if just brushing all negative feedback aside as ‘hating’ by ‘haters’, you actually might miss being stuck in a rut, doing something not meaningful and not living to your full potential. If you consistently receive mostly negative feedback, take a moment to consider if doing what you do indeed makes sense and provides a meaningful contribution to the world, or should you either adjust your goals or at least the means. It’s a definite warning sign if others’ assessment of your work is consistently different across the board than your; you’ll either be a celebrated genius in two generations, or you’ll fail to contribute to or connect with the mainstream and will not achieve anything significant.

Not to mention that labeling casual unpleasantness of social intercourse as ‘hate’ is not only a logical fallacy, but brings a new toxic aspect to the discourse. Using the hater-hammer in discussion usually shuts it down or commonly first degrades it into name calling. This will further only egg genuine haters and trolls on, who are mainly only in it to elicit an emotional response to start with, and quench any thoughtful criticism that might actually spark some learning. Trolls will starve and go away if you don’t get sucked into that emotional mælstrom that feeds them.

In fact it appears based on my meager experience in public works that, however inconsiderate people are when giving feedback, every so often there’s a point worth considering somewhere, regardless how coarsely it’s put across. It may be that the feedback itself is terribly helpful, but the process of reflecting on it almost always is, provided it’s done with honesty and presence of mind. It’s up to a professional to make like an oyster, take that grain of sand and build a pearl of wisdom around it.

And don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of feedback in my line of work, and sometimes it is harsh, straightforward, and even downright rude. I’m invested in my work, I care for it, and derive pride in doing a good job, so of course it stings occasionally. However, you also learn to deal with it, or you’ll get out of that business. To be constructive, let me finish off with my three-point program on how to deal with criticism or feedback in general:

Number one: distance yourself emotionally from the feedback. Rarely anything good came from responding to feedback angry or bewildered. Take time to settle down before you go any further.

Number two: assess the feedback. Don’t let the feedback get under your skin, but take it seriously. Once you’ve settled down, take a moment to see what the person who is giving you feedback is actually saying or trying to say.  Reflect on the feedback from different perspectives; try to put yourself in their shoes, and look at it as an outsider. See if it makes sense in the first place, if there indeed is a problem, and then determine what are the corrective actions as proposed by the feedback, and/or other information available to you.

You may ask what the person meant if they seem to act in good faith but you don’t understand what they’re getting at. You may discuss it with a colleague or a friend to see their perspective. Cluster your feedback in terms of demographics to see are the some groups who are particularly opposed or supportive. If it’s totally irrelevant even after a consideration, leave it aside. If it’s actionable, move ahead. Don’t neglect to look at the overview at this point, as discussed above, consider whether all or only some of your feedback is negative, and if that is the case, whether you really are on the right track.

Number three: put it into action. If you have arrived to the conclusion that there indeed is a problem, and that there are some actionable ways to fix it, determine what ways suit your resources and goals. Alter what plans you have, or make new ones. Act on them and follow up.

Now let’s go on and build those pearls of wisdom from the grains that are thrown our way!

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Sustainable business?

I work in a research institution, where sustainability is an important overarching theme in research. Consequently sustainability comes up in water cooler discussions quite regularly. One occasionally revisited topic or a problem is that why don’t more people shop more sustainably, i.e. why doesn’t sustainability sell?

One answer to this question came to me when I recently bought a bottle of ‘sustainable’ biodegradable dish soap that was on sale, i.e. the same price as ‘normal’ detergent. The first impression was after the usual dose that the stuff doesn’t clean anything. I ended up using multiple times more of the biodegradable formula than regular detergent to get grease off the dishes. I ended up wondering exactly how sustainable it is to use an ounce of the detergent when a few drops used to do. The definite conclusion was that I certainly weren’t getting anywhere near the value for my money. When I remarked on this in facebook, a friend of mine replied that, even after thinking about it, he couldn’t come up with one product being marketed as sustainable of environmentally friendly that was any good. It seems almost as though manufacturers or product managers are either focused on performance and value for money, or sustainability, whatever it means.

And here exactly is the problem. There is a distinct impression in many products, including the dish soap I bought, that they are clearly marketed and designed for sustainability, performance or value for money were far from the top of the list of qualities that were considered when evaluating the product during development. In fact for many products it seems that the main selling argument is ‘sustainability’ or ‘eco-friendliness’, other specifications and attributes be damned. While I don’t doubt that there is a number of consumers who will value sustainability in its many forms over other product attributes, I’m willing to hazard an educated guess that the main stream of consumers in fact don’t. On the contrary, I believe the issue is that the existing products work just fine, and moving to a new product is a risk that, however small, may seem not worth taking if there is no clear incentive. It’s widely held in innovation management literature, before sustainability, that value for money, i.e. perceived price/performance -ratio is the deciding factor in adopting new products or technologies. Patri Friedman put it sublimely concisely “incentives work, even if you don’t believe in them.”

One could argue that sustainability an sich is an important value proposition, but there is little that I’ve seen to support that. Otherwise people would shop more biodynamic food and drive small diesels with filtered deep frier fat for fuel. Even in Denmark, arguably one of the most sustainably conscious countries in the world, it’s industrial chicken and pork, and just about the only thing keeping people from driving large powerful cars is lack of parking space and vehicle taxation. Even further, performance of the product has to be on some acceptable, satisficing, level of performance for the sustainability-oriented consumer.

It seems that the problem becomes, not why don’t people shop sustainably, but what can we do to incentivize people to transition towards sustainabilty? The answer is: better products. One of the premium examples of sustainable products that are good I can come up with, are biodegradable bicycle cleaners and lubrication products. The one’s I’ve tried are reasonably priced, although more expensive that the cheapest petroleum-based products, but what is more important they’re actually better! Pine-oil based degreasers are safer to use, clean better and you don’t have to take special measures to dispose of them after use. Bio-degradable chain lubes that I’ve tried work better and longer in adverse conditions than the regular petroleum-based ones I’ve tried. And they’re sustainable, so it’s a win-win – paying some extra isn’t such a chore all of a sudden.

The lesson here is plain and simple: if you match or preferably exceed the performance of incumbent substitute products in the same price bracket with your sustainable product, people will buy. I will dare say that for the majority of consumers sustainability, whatever it means, is not a sales argument that alone will excuse performance and value for money, nor does it need to be. However, sustainability can be the part of a value proposition that will stand out tip the buyer over to choosing to your product over similarly performing substitutes.