There is an element of design that is essential: critique. It’s an intrinsic activity we learn in art schools. As artists, opinions of our own work can be biased. We’re overexposed to it. We know it’s flaws intimately, or are perhaps blind to them after a certain amount of effort. Getting a second opinion is one of the best ways to improve, if we’re willing to act on the feedback and revise. So, the ability to give criticism, and respond to it appropriately is a trait we seek to nurture in ourselves and the people with whom we work. We look for evidence of these abilities when hiring or delegating responsibility.
Too often though, criticism takes a negative form. Narrowing the conversation to the simplistic and pessimistic activity of pointing out flaws, attributing those flaws to individuals. Creative teams degrade when they are guided by the heirarchical principle that a good manager criticizes, and a good designer takes criticism. When we decide who can give criticism and who must receive it based on power constructs, creativity dies. The work becomes templatized, limited by fear.
I’d like to describe what good leadership is and how that manifests in design criticism. I believe it is rooted in optimism. Optimism, as defined by Martin E.P. Seligman Ph.D. in his book ‘Learned Optimism,’ is not an innate quality that people either have or don’t. It can be learned, like anything else, if it is practiced. Gain an understanding of what optimism is by examining it’s opposite: pessimism.
Pessimistic beliefs have a combination of three identifying traits. They are personal, they are permanent, and they are pervasive. Here is an example: A mistake is made. The pessimist concludes that “the person who made a mistake makes mistakes.” In other words “Phillip, specifically, always makes mistakes.” Personal, permanent, and pervasive–as though that specific person alone is in a state of mistakenness for all time. A fearful pessimist thinks this way about themselves as well. Rather than risk the exposure by really working with their team, they limit their activity to making judgments, placing blame, and taking credit.
Pessimistic thinking can be equally damaging to creativity when things are going well. The pessimistic leader thinks: “I am responsible, I led this effort, I should lead all efforts.” The pessimistic stakeholder says: “Phillip succeeded this time, I’m not confident in future work that isn’t led by Phillip.” The pessimistic organization sinks into duplication of whatever worked the first time. Terrified of any further investment in expiriment, initiative, and surely that which is initiated by newcomers.
The optimist sees the situation differently, “people sometimes make mistakes.” Many people make mistakes on occasion in various circumstances, including me. People who choose to see things optimistically do not permanently condemn others, or themselves. They see that mistakes, for example, are not permanent, and can happen to anyone. Further, they do not permanently personalize successes, giving the same leader all the leadership opportunity over and over again; then calling that teamwork.
Optimistic thinking allows for fluidity and growth. It gives people a second chance. It gives other people a second chance. It even gives first chances. It doesn’t cling to negative assumptions regarding the motivations and efforts of others without testing them over time. It doesn’t box people in to seniority based hierarchies. An optimistic person isn’t afraid to contribute to the work themselves. Optimism is the seed that real teams grow from. Optimistic people as a consequence make much better artists and managers. Optimism facilitates healthy critique of the work.
Look around your organization. What type of criticism are you rewarding? Is it personal, permanent, pervasive? Is it mandated to be one directional? Listen to what people are really saying, and what you say to yourself. If you find that pessimism has infiltrated your system, you can be encouraged by knowing that optimism is something that can be learned and practiced. Focus your criticism to elements of the work that are not personal; nothing about the business of creativity is permanent or pervasive. You can do it; and so can I; for now.
Practice optimistic thinking in your creative work and criticism.