Compliments or Criticism – Trust or Power

“When we willingly accept compliments, we are reminded that others see us through different eyes … Many of us find it difficult to accept compliments but easy to believe the slightest criticism.” –  Madisyn Taylor, DailyOM

I’d carry this thought a little further:  Why do we downplay compliments and focus on “positive” criticism?  Why consider praise insincere and finding fault valuable?  Why do we always include a “but?”  I say its all about power dynamics.  Most of the people who feel qualified to criticize are more “powerful” than us.  Following that idea, we feel best able to criticize those we consider less powerful than us.

With positive criticism as the main dynamic, praise is just a balm used to make the negative more palatable.  Praise is the “but” used by people in power to justify their actions and make us question our own reactions.  Praise is just part of a larger critical interaction and praise without that interaction is suspicious.  In my family, supportive behavior was seen as setting the stage for what they wanted in exchange.  Praise is a reward rather than a gift.  Praise is either a debt to be paid or the payment of an earlier debt.

“Feedback that is well-received and easily acted upon is feedback that comes from a person you trust. It’s that simple … If your employees trust you, they will listen to your recommendations and try to follow them. If they don’t trust you, they won’t.” –  Liz Ryan

Most structured workplaces are intolerant of differences.  Employees are expected to conform, given feedback on how to do that, and evaluated on how well they comply.  Being rewarded for meeting those expectations is the basis for “trust.”  I often remain silent and non-compliant rather than expend the energy needed for direct confrontation.

I try to act without the expectation of quid-pro-quo or a specific outcome.  I refuse to allow praise and the expectations of other people dictate my actions.  Do I weigh the needs and opinions of the family, friends and coworkers around me?  Yes, but that is only one factor in several.

In conclusion, positive criticism has devalued praise.  This is why we find it so much easier to expect criticism than praise.  Compliments are seen as inducements to make changes, while our faults belong to us.  Perhaps those faults can be spun into positives in our self-evaluation.  We accept the criticism as sincere and thus valuable.  We question praise and wonder when the other shoe will drop.  We trust criticism and question praise.  That is the extreme of competition and scarcity.

NOTE:  A “power dynamic” is the way different people or different groups of people interact with each other and where one of these sides is more powerful than the other one. See Wikipedia for a definition of social/political power.