The Canadian Health Libraries Association/Association des bibliothèques de la santé du Canada has a mentorship interest group. While I can be skeptical about institutional “leadership training” and am in that awkward adolescent phase of my career in which I’m not exactly new anymore but not quite senior enough to be a mentor, the idea of being connected with an experienced Canadian health librarian seemed low-risk and potentially positive, so I signed up. Turns out that it’s actually been quite nice to be sent profession-related conversation topics on a monthly basis, and it’s been quite enjoyable to get to know my assigned mentor better (someone I might not have really connected strongly with otherwise, but with whom I have a surprising amount in common).
This month’s “check in” from the mentorship interest group is about “Compliments and criticism,” and refers readers to the recent Harvard Business Review blog post: “Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful.” The jist of the article is that withholding constructive criticism may be “nice,” but it’s certainly not helpful to your colleagues.
I’ve written about “the dreaded librarian niceness” here before, and the email conversation with my CHLA/ABSC mentor brought up some points regarding criticism and niceness that I thought were worth copying to this blog.
There are two experiences, both of which I feel very fortunate to have had, strongly inform my approach to feedback giving/getting. The first is my classical music training, and the second is anti-racism organizing.
Classical Music Studies
The couple years before I trained in conservatory, when I was a high school student taking music lessons, I had an amazing music teacher who paired me with another student for double lessons. Not only did this give us extra lesson time, and create a bond between the two of us (who were necessarily also competitors at auditions all the time), but he taught us how to teach by having us constantly give constructive feedback to each other. I remember him early on telling us to think of 3 things the other person did well in the piece she just played, and then 3 suggestions you have to make it better. He modelled this type of feedback, and I still use this style with regularity.
What does this mean in practice? I try always to give positive feedback in at least as large a quantity as the negative, and to always lead with the positive, whether it’s giving feedback on a colleague’s grant proposal draft or student term paper comments. I don’t mean being disingenuous about how great something is; in my experience there are always some positive elements in any performance if you just look for them – and retaining the good parts is as important as improving the weak parts. When I went to conservatory and was exposed to the big bad world of the classical music industry, in which cutting, negative comments were depressingly the norm (one adjudicator’s comments on my first recital were, in totality, “The Beethoven was better [then the preceding piece], but still not good.” !!) I gained a deeper appreciation for the “civilized” and constructive way I had been taught to provide critique.
Later on, I became very involved with anti-racism organizing, something I carry on to this day in various ways. This was yet another forum in which criticism could be very nasty. There are a lot of people dealing with a lot of hurt and anger and also guilt when you’re talking about societal structures of privilege and oppression.
As a person with white-skin privilege, it was really important for me to learn to self-criticize in a humane way (productively, not merely berating myself for past wrongs) and to learn to accept anger and negativity from people of colour about things I could not “fix.” Trying to be a white ally to people of colour in various contexts sometimes means hearing awful things, or being excluded for very good reasons that might nonetheless hurt my ego.
Learning to listen to people’s criticism, and even anger, toward me and the groups to which I belong, without immediately reacting, was a big thing for me. Even if I think the accusations hurled at me are unfair, I owe it to a member of a group I oppress (even if just by default, by being a member of a more privileged group) to really listen to what they say. And then consider later how I might respond.
This means suppressing the urge to immediately defend myself or my family or my school/work/co-op/etc., and the desire to “fight back.” Because the accusations weren’t really what I wanted to be fighting. Even if they were based in a misunderstanding or incorrect rumour, there was something important in them that could teach me about oppression and how to untangle it.
This is harder to explain, and to quantify, than the “3 positive + 3 negative comments” rule, but also really important and influential with regard to how I handle criticism. Even if a critique feels like an unfair attack, I try to listen to it and figure out what it’s really about, and what in the criticism is useful for my learning.
In my Current Work
I should note that both of these lessons about criticism are lessons I try to pass along in my classroom when I am teaching. At my current librarian-job workplace, the research team with which I am primarily affiliated works hard to create a constructive environment in which to workshop each other’s work. It’s not perfect – I think most of us are still a bit too hesitant to throw really rough ideas out there, which is likely a side-effect of the hierarchical structure of supervision (i.e. not wanting to look dumb in front of your boss), and a challenge of the interdisciplinary nature of the team (i.e. those from other disciplines might not understand my half-formed idea). But we do also have a fair bit of informal collegial workshopping and feedback as well – we edit each other’s papers all the time, for example.
The interdisciplinary nature of the team really highlights the different approaches to criticism. Economists, for example, can apparently be very nasty in criticism (not our economists, but ours are renegade economists who swap war stories of econ conference presentations)! In my experience, librarians (especially public librarians) tend toward being overly “nice,” but niceness is not the same as respecting a person’s rights and behaving in a just and equitable manner.
In a conversation with another blogger, Katie, here a few years ago, I wrote, “Nice is culturally based and thus culturally biased. Nice to me means exclusive to others who don’t share our cultural norms. Nice to my colleague means not challenging her when she says something racist in a meeting. Sometimes being ethical means having to be not-nice to people.” This still pretty much sums up my problem with “the dreaded librarian niceness” and hits on some of our disciplinary challenges with constructive criticism.