On Praise and Criticism

Image by Piotr Łohunko (CC)

Coming to Warsaw after living in London has given me an opportunity to re-examine my homeland and culture. A lot has changed in the past few years, Warsaw is becoming an incredibly dynamic, vibrant and multicultural city, with lots of new business ventures, startups, and great new energy. Being a foreigner is no longer a problem, as there are plenty of international social initiatives, groups and other opportunities to meet people, network and fully enjoy what the place has to offer. I can honestly say that I’m very fond of the city. Thanks to its relatively small size (in comparison to places like London or New York) and excellent public transport, moving around is easy and unlike London, going out isn’t a big production—spontaneous meetings over coffee without much of a notice are common here. I also think that Warsaw has a higher standard of living than London. Of course, I’m not thinking about Chelsea bankers here, but an average Londoner whose housing choices are often limited to suburban flats which leave a lot be desired, due to sky-rocketing property prices.

That said, there are certain elements of Polish culture that I find myself perpetually questioning. A lot is changing when it comes to the attitude towards other cultures, to racial, sexual, religious etc. minorities, and to alternative life choices, and the stigma of intolerance is certainly lifting, as it the stereotype of a homogeneously Catholic country. But there is something that seems almost unshakeable, that penetrates all areas of work and social interaction: non-constructive criticism.

I’ve started thinking more about it after a couple of conversations I recently had with two expats who have been living in Poland. One of them works in finance and the other in media, but their observations were very similar: Poles tend to be very self-critical and often inhibited, while at the same time they’re quick to criticize others, especially those who are successful. This sort of mindset and way of being, in my opinion have one distinctive root: lack of sufficient appreciation at school and during upbringing.

For there is in fact something we can call an optimal ratio of praise to criticism. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman are referring to the research conducted by academic Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada, which examined “the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company”. According to the research, the factor that played the biggest role in making a team successful or not, was the ratio of positive to negative comments. In the case of the highest-performing teams, the average ratio was 5.6 which means almost six positive comments for every negative one. Below is a little chart that demonstrates results of the study.

Of course negative feedback is important, if not necessary, when we’re off track, or doing something wrong or potentially harmful. But due to various cognitive biases our brain is prone to, negative feedback can have much more impact than praise, and it can easily become destructive rather than constructive. Neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote an article analysing the different scientific factors which make criticism such a powerful tool, and how these biases have developed in the process of evolution. “Research suggests,” Burnett writes, “that there’s an actual neurological bias our brains exhibit, placing more importance on negative stimuli, eg criticism. It’s a very persistent bias. We’ve evolved to respond quickly and strongly to negative stimuli, and have dedicated brain regions like the amygdala, which encodes the emotional component (eg fear) of an experience so that it remains potent and we can rapidly learn from it.” So while negative feedback has its role and can change behaviour, as Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman say “it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts. Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.” Rajiv Popat, Principal Officer at eFORCE and author of Leadership, Constructive Criticism And Not Playing The Blame Game article, says that “If you must criticize, do so constructively, followed by empathy, followed by genuine help.”

The five-to-one ratio isn’t limited to workspace, it applies to other areas such as relationships too. According to John Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail, in which he analyses the chances wedded couples have at staying together, the determining factor is the exact same ratio of positive to negative comments made by partners to each other: “(…) as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable.”

Unfortunately, Polish education system is a place where the opposite ratio of positive to negative feedback takes place. With lack of encouragement, it is very easy to develop resentment towards sharing ideas and knowledge, for the criticism can be incredibly unpleasant. I was lucky to have very encouraging parents,  always eager to congratulate me on any success, however big or small, but if I had to rely on school and the environment for motivating feedback, I would probably grow up insecure. The system of harsh criticism and little encouragement continues beyond the walls of primary, secondary and high schools. When a few years ago, I found myself doing an MA at the Academy of Fine Arts, I was taken aback with the behaviour of both students and tutors. My collaboration and experimentation-oriented BA course at Central Saint Martins in London put a lot of emphasis on giving and receiving feedback, both from tutors and from our peers, as well as on self-assessment. The atmosphere around presenting and discussing our work was so friendly and inspiring, that I considered those project assessments one of my favourite things about the course. It was always a great opportunity to hear what my strengths are, where I had succeeded and where I can improve from my tutors and other students, and each assessment made me want to do better next time. I never felt ashamed to ask a question and admit that I didn’t know something or express doubts about my work. People were enthusiastic about each other’s projects, happy to engage with them and appreciate them, and motivate each other to push their boundaries.

The Warsaw Academy was far from that. Group assessments were non-existent, though the one-to-one sessions with tutors (called “corrections”—this unfortunate name already implies that there is something wrong with our work) usually happened in the presence of other students. Those students, however, would hardly ever comment positively on each other’s work, and would stare at it with an expression of either aloofness and sense of superiority (if they found the work weak), or poorly disguised jealousy (if the work was good). Needless to say, I found those assessments rather unpleasant. Also, I quickly discovered that praise in general was considered deeply uncool—people would be very careful when expressing opinions about a theatre performance, film, book, etc. as if saying something nice about it would make others perceive them as “easily pleased” or lacking a refined taste. At the time, I found this a bizarre phenomenon, but I didn’t give it too much thought, as I was focused mainly on my own work, and returned to London as soon as my MA was finished.

Image by Hilary Perkins (CC)

And now I am finding myself again in the epicentre of Polish culture, looking at it, again, through the eyes of a foreigner (I spent many more years in London than Warsaw) and being able to compare my observations with expats who have lived here longer than me. The friend who works in finance said that Poles are very hard-working, ambitious and dedicated, but the fear of failing is stopping them from experimenting, bringing forth new ideas and trying alternative solutions. That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. If our whole experience of schooling is based on being criticised, punished and ridiculed for making mistakes, then no wonder people aren’t eager to say something that might evoke this dreaded reaction. At the same time, the lack of appreciation for achievements at school means that people grow up not used to expressing appreciation, and others’ success is often met with resentment, which the other expat friend has had a first-hand experience of.

This is a shame because in terms of the level of education, Polish schools are doing great. According to The Sustainable economic development assessment (Seda) by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which measures wellbeing across 149 countries, Poland got a score of 90 (out of 100) in the education sector, which puts it ahead of Britain (74). “Poland is ahead of the UK when it comes to teacher-to-pupil ratio and levels of tertiary enrolment,” we can read in George Arnett’s article in The Guardian.

According to the article in The Economist, international rankings put Polish students well ahead of America’s in science and maths. Our maths classes apparently tend to be “more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.”

Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way adds that “Children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed. Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (…). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”.”

The outcome of those studies doesn’t surprise me, for the level of education in Poland is indeed high, and our schools are very good at enforcing discipline, hard work and absolute dedication from students. My MA course was incredibly complex, thorough and I had incomparably more individual contact with tutors here than in London. But I wish that the passion for acquiring knowledge in Polish schools came from encouragement and motivation, rather than pressure and fear of being criticised. Students who have succeeded thanks to their own will and resilience, but who haven’t been sufficiently appreciated, are likely to become the sort of managers that Rajiv Popat is describing in his article: “During his very early days as a manager for a brief period of time, Pops wrote fairly heated emails to people in his team when they indulged in the acts of incompetence. Very soon, he realized that those heated emails were creating one consistent output: More Incompetence. That added incompetence of course resulted in more heated emails being sent by Pops. This thing was almost like the infinite loop of failure.” A simple change like acts of encouragement and honest support makes a tremendous difference: “I’ve seen individuals on the verge of being fired by managers turn to one of the most critical team members by a mere change of role”.

Poland is changing rapidly, and I am positive that it won’t be long before we begin recognising the power of positive feedback in both work and personal environment, and the magical 5-to-1 ratio. And I hope that stories like my friend’s, who recently told me that the only boss who was eager to compliment her after she had done good work, was a foreigner, will be an exception to the rule, not the other way round.