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The Future of...Criticism: Why it’s Critical to Keep Being Judgmental in Our Work

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As we approach two years since the start of the pandemic, David Stevens, strategist and writer at Wolff Olins, asks whether the workplace has become too softly-softly and whether we need to get a lot more critical

Let us get one thing out of the way: this is not an article about whether the workplace is too ‘woke’ or whether everyone’s a snowflake. Instead, this piece intends to examine whether ‘criticism’ and critical thinking has lost its way over the past couple of years.

In January 2021, HBR ran a piece entitled ‘Giving Critical Feedback Is Even Harder Remotely’. It suggested that managers feared crushing their employees’ spirits as they sat at home worried about their physical, economic and mental wellbeing. Sensitivity became paramount, and understandably so.

But though managers may have learned some valuable lessons about how to be more diplomatic, emotionally-aware and a tad more human, have we lost the art of argument? Have we fallen into the trap of conflating criticism (rigorous analysis and a discerning eye) with negativity?

New York Times movie critic AO Scott certainly thinks so - even beyond the world of work. In his book ‘Better Living Through Criticism’, Scott points out that whilst creators are seen as virtuous and sometimes divine, critics are by contrast looked down on as parasites, destroyers rather than builders - “the snake in the garden.”

Scott counters that artists and creators are in fact critics themselves, that all art is in a sense a criticism of what precedes it and surrounds it. 

Indeed, any professional creator - whether fine artist or marketing copywriter - creates by carefully analysing norms, accepting or rejecting ideas and then presenting their own work, in whatever form, to get a reaction. 

So, when you think about it, it's nonsense to ask people to not be critical. Using our ‘critical faculty’ is what makes us more creative, more engaged and more original human beings. 

So if we’re all naturally critical and analytical, what’s the problem? 

One big issue is that critical thinking - and the opportunity to exercise it - is not always encouraged. And right now, when lots of employers are battling for talent in the midst of the ‘Great Resignation’, you can imagine employers wanting to promote a culture of friendly acceptance, not of rigorous analysis.

Indeed, as The Guardian suggests, this is a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment, where workers can demand better hours, perks and work-life balance.

Don’t fear criticism, fear ‘bullshit jobs’

Whilst the themes of the Great Resignation and the topic of ‘Anti-Work’ are attracting heated debate, it’s also worth remembering that lots of the jobs people want to leave are ones that fit anthropologist David Graber’s definition of ‘Bullshit Jobs’, that is: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case."

Indeed, it is precisely these kinds of ‘uncritical’ jobs and working conditions that lead people to be unhappy. It is the lack of engagement with your critical-analytical mind that drives so much dissatisfaction.

So, to build better, more engaging and more inclusive workplaces, we need to recognise a crucial distinction: between creating environments that feel psychologically safe and free from personal shaming on the one hand; and, on the other hand, ensuring we encourage spirited criticism, debate and divergent thinking. In doing so, we must underline that it’s OK to attack an idea, as long as you don’t attack a person. 

For too long, workers have had to put up with unwarranted personal criticism and obsessions with metrics and goals. Instead, workplaces need to elevate the art of critique. Otherwise, we might as well stay in our jogging bottoms and hit the snooze button.

Disagree? Well now you’re just being critical.

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