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You Can’t Handle the Truth

February 23, 2014

I heard a story on the radio the other day about the uselessness of performance reviews. It quoted someone who said the only people who want to hear negatives about themselves are people who are already dedicated to excellence.

In Toastmasters, we give generally positive evaluations of speeches. Every speech has an assigned evaluator, who spends several minutes going over what they liked about the speech and adding a few suggestions for improvement. We try very hard to be positive because we know how hard it is to get up and speak in public.

One night I did not do that. My dear friend Bruce, who is a longtime Toastmaster, got up to speak. He was unprepared and admitted as much, veering off in several different directions, even saying he was trying to decide what to talk about as he spoke.

I was his evaluator. Had he been a newer Toastmaster, I would have been kinder. But I felt like he had the experience to know better and do better, and my criticism was the harshest I had ever given or hope to give.

The audience was visibly shocked. They sat back in their chairs, rustling uncomfortably. When I got done, the applause was sparse indeed.

Later, CC took me to task. We ended up yelling at each other in the car, with her saying I shouldn’t have done what I did, and with me defending my actions. We never came to a resolution.

That was several years ago, and it wasn’t until recently that Bruce brought that evaluation up again. He told me that he felt I had given him one of the best evaluations he had ever had. I was relieved because I had felt all along that Bruce understood what I was trying to do, which was to shake him up and get him back on track.

I trusted that he was dedicated to excellence, and I’m glad he confirmed my beliefs.

When I was younger, I was horrible at receiving criticism. I automatically rejected it, angrily thinking that people were trying to hurt me. It wasn’t until I started writing for the newspaper and was under the supervision of a tough but very fair editor that I realized that he was trying to give me a valuable education.

“If I want to get better at this, I have to put my ego aside,” I thought. I had to lock my screaming teenage ego in a closet and take a clear-eyed look at my work every day, helped along by the team of editors and copy editors. They were never shy about offering criticism, and for that, I am glad.

Now I crave feedback. I gave a presentation on Thursday and dragged someone out into the hallway afterward, wanting to hear exactly what she thought.

I’m sure my screaming teenage ego is still out there somewhere, because I can hear her off in the distance. It’s just that I don’t care what she’s yelling about anymore. I have work to do.

  1. February 24, 2014 04:51

    I agree that “only people who want to hear negatives about themselves are people who are already dedicated to excellence” but that doesn’t mean performance reviews are useless. Sure, a performance review that just said “do better” would be useless. But a good performance review / feedback session identifies what’s strong and what needs work from a perspective outside your own head.

  2. February 24, 2014 22:11

    I’m in Toastmasters and sometimes it can be frustrating to only get candy-coated evaluations. Give it to me straight! It can be done constructively and with love. At work I often have occasion to edit the writing of others – usually my staff but sometimes my peers. I get torn between really wanting to create the best product and guilt for bleeding red all over their work!

  3. cindymaddera permalink
    February 25, 2014 07:14

    I grew up in a house of criticism. I don’t mind hearing it as long as it’s something I can use to improve myself. Sure it stings, but performing it as is without taking that criticism into consideration and looking like an idiot stings worse.

  4. kizzbeth permalink
    February 25, 2014 09:45

    I want to hear what I need to work on but I want to hear it in the very nicest terms possible. I know that a lot of people can’t hear what needs improvement unless you land on the lesson pretty hard but not me. I’ll hear it. I’ll really hear it. I’ll hear it years later on a loop in my head so I appreciate it if what I hear is constructive, actionable, and loving.

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