When I’m wrong, call me out!

Here’s a radical idea: every time you refrain from correcting someone out of politeness, you are doing them a disservice by robbing them of a valuable opportunity for self-improvement.

Lately, I have noticed a disconcerting trend: people in daily life are more reluctant to point out and correct other’s mistakes. This has been most pronounced than in the classroom where it seems to be impossible for a student to actually give a wrong answer. Instead, they are “on the right track” or “have the basic concept” no matter how far away from the correct response they actually are. Now, I understand professors may not want to discourage a student by flat out telling them they are wrong, but despite recent political developments in the US, we are not living in a post-truth world. There are still right and wrong answers, optimal ways to solve a problem, and opinions that belong in “the dustbin of history.” The aversion to correcting false statements extends beyond the classroom. In my time with NASA, I sat in on many meetings where a manager said something all the engineers knew was technically wrong, but no one would ever think to speak up and point this out. Afterwards, we talked about how the manager had no clue how things actually got done, but instead of explaining that to him, we let him continue in his false beliefs. As a final example, consider a typical scenario in the early rounds of the popular singing contest American Idol: a young contestant, full of enthusiasm and confidence walks onto the stage and belts out an absolutely unbearable rendition of a pop song. How on Earth did they come to believe they had any singing talent? Because no one had ever been told them how bad they really were. For years, they had been surrounded by family and friends who politely told them they were a great performer, a delusion that finally was shattered in front of a national audience. All it would have taken was a single honest person to tell the contestant that maybe they should pursue a different path to save them hours of wasted effort and the embarrassment of a failed audition.

What is the driving force behind the criticism decline? The answer has two parts. First, the powerful inertia of the status quo prevents people from taking action to step up and make a correction. It takes considerable effort to not only point out a falsehood, but then to patiently explain to someone why they are incorrect. We are all so absorbed in our own lives and problems that dealing with others’ issues can be overwhelming. It’s much easier to just let the mistake slide and continue on with the conversation or meeting rather than be “that” person who has to make a fuss. The problem with this mindset is that progress only happens by going against the status quo. It’s the disruptive individuals and companies that end up having the greatest influence as opposed to those who sit silently and let dismal conditions persist. “That” person who speaks up may seem obnoxious, but I would argue that any company should seek out those individuals who are not afraid to challenge standard operating procedure. The unwillingness of people at large companies to go against the grain, has been given the name, “the culture of complacency,” and has been blamed for numerous disasters, including the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the crash of Korean Air 801. Societal advances are made not through passivity, but by those people who look at the current way of doing something and think “that could be done more efficiently.” Mindlessly agreeing with a manager or co-workers is admittedly easier than correcting them, but it will never lead to meaningful change.

The second aspect of the criticism decline is our own feelings of vulnerability. We believe that if we point out the mistakes of others, then others will be inclined to mention our own shortcomings. It is admittedly very difficult to open ourselves to criticism, even when we know how often we are wrong. I expect to be questioned when I give a presentation, but my initial internal reaction to any correction is still extremely negative. We all have built complex representations of the world in our heads, and when one part is challenged, it can feel as if the whole edifice may crumble. When we think about correcting someone else, we start to wonder if our own viewpoint could be wrong as well. What if our correction of the initial mistake is itself corrected by someone else? Or, even worse, what if someone questions one of the foundations of our worldview and forces us to think critically about our viewpoints? The issue with this line of thinking is that it implicitly suggests that being exposed to our own failures is a negative. I would argue this is actually one of the most valuable opportunities we are given. It is through making mistakes and learning from them that the most rapid self-improvement occurs. Yes, when we correct someone else, we open ourselves up to correction, but that is actually something to strive for rather than avoid.

What Can be Done?

We need to approach the problem from two directions: not only must we overcome our hesitation towards delivering constructive criticism, but we need to get better at responding when it is directed towards our ideas. The best way to shift our mindset with regards to the latter part of the problem is thinking about the following: we only make progress by learning from mistakes, however, making blunders can only be painful and time-consuming. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn from failures without having to actually go through them ourselves? Well, that is exactly what happens when someone corrects us. If someone can see that we are on the path to messing something up because they themselves have done the exact same thing, then it is in our best interest to listen to them rather than carry through on our intended course of action. One individual can only make so many mistakes, but by learning from those of others, we can expand the effective number of experiences to which we are exposed. Think about Amazon reviews: rather than buy inferior products ourselves, we can rely on other’s experiences and purchase only the one item that has been tested and approved by hundreds of other people. Experience and knowledge should not be kept to each individual, but rather shared among a group. That ultimately is the benefit of working with others: rather than having to learn everything firsthand, we can use the collective knowledge of those around us to solve our problems. Then, when we make a mistake, we contribute what we learned back to the group and the entire knowledge base we can draw from grows.

The single best way to get better at accepting criticism is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. If you ever think that you are the smartest person in the room, then you need to move. This semester, I have been fortunate to work as an undergrad in a research lab with a number of grad students with much more experience than me. At first, I tried to keep quiet out of fear of being exposed as naive, but eventually I gained the confidence to speak up after I saw even the post-docs were routinely corrected. Soon, I was benefiting enormously from the: make a mistake — receive constructive feedback — improve methods cycle. I have come to embrace the limits of my knowledge and I try to learn as much as possible from the previous experiences of others. In particular, I enjoy receiving feedback from one post-doc who is well, a little blunt in her criticism. At first, her style was off-putting, but once I realized she was only trying to help, I started to seek out her opinions. Now, I often send her my work with the explicit instructions to be as harsh as possible, an assignment in which she takes particular delight. This technique of intentionally opening yourself up to recurring criticism now even has a name: “rejection therapy,” which falls under the general psychological principle of classical conditioning. The idea is that by repeatedly exposing ourselves to failure on purpose, we can start to view failures as a normal course of life and not disastrous setbacks. As society is becoming more failure-averse, there is a growing recognition of the need for making constructive mistakes. To be better receivers of criticism we need to shift our view of mistakes from entirely negative, to frustrating in the short-term, but a long term positive investment.

The other half of addressing the criticism decline is learning how to give constructive feedback. There are any number of ways to tell someone they are incorrect, from the straight-up “that’s wrong” to the round-about “well, maybe, perhaps you don’t quite have everything quite right.” The correct method of delivery depends on the audience and sometimes it’s necessary to know when to exercise restraint. A recent situation presented me with a conundrum that I am still not sure I correctly resolved. I was at a talk by a Google employee on the subject of impostor syndrome, where you finally get that dream position, but then feel like you really don’t belong and that at any time, someone might point it out. This is a serious subject that prevents many people who are underrepresented in a field from even trying to get a position because they feel as if they won’t be accepted. The presenter shared several methods for overcoming impostor syndrome which she said had worked for her. One of these was “power poses”, or the idea that you gain confidence by adopting certain stances such as standing with your hands on your hips at a meeting. The beneficial effects of power poses had been written up in a journal article and one of the authors had given a TED talk which has since been viewed almost 45 million times. However, I had recently read an article from another of the original authors who took back all the results of the study and said that she did not believe power poses actually work. Further studies had also failed to prove any benefits to “power poses.” The presenter mentioned the original journal article as proof these poses worked, and I was faced with the question of whether or not to interrupt her and point out the flaws in the study and the debate over the results. In the end, I decided not to because I thought it would distract from her main message. After the talk I went to the presenter and told her about the recent developments concerning the study. We ended up having a good discussion on the reproducibility crisis in the social sciences (about 40% of study results cannot be replicated), and I thought I handled the situation well. However, I still wonder if I should have pointed out the debate over the study so everyone in the audience could hear the entire story.

I am not making an argument for seeking out as many opportunities as possible to tell people they are wrong. However, when you encounter an obvious false statement or inefficient solution to a problem, feel free to speak up. Don’t be afraid to be that disruptive person at a meeting, because you may prevent the next Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or find a way to make a process twice as efficient. In the end, remember both when receiving and giving criticism, it is always the idea and not the person that is incorrect. Disagreements lead to far more progress than mindless acceptance of the status quo, and people are often willing to change their methods if you will have a reasoned discussion with them. Learn to associate criticism not with negativity, but with an opportunity for improvement and start to enjoy the benefits of shared knowledge and experiences. In that spirit, if anything I have written in this post, or any other post, or anything I say in real-life is wrong, do me a favor and let me know!

Data Scientist at Cortex Intel, Data Science Communicator