Minister Bheki Cele didn’t react well to criticism this week. (See video) He was called on some police matters and, in his response, made mistakes that we can all learn from. Criticism is something we all have to deal with – in our personal and professional capacity – and it’s often quite hard not to have an emotional response. What is the best way to deal with criticism?
Cele’s response had to be immediate and in front of an audience. With this added pressure his reaction was emotional and lost sight of the real issue. Playing the racism card, he lost credibility and his opportunity to react to the critique against him turned into an emotional outburst from where there was no return. Reacting to criticism in a positive way is difficult for most of us. No one really enjoys being criticized. Staying level-headed, especially in a live situation where you are being recorded, will be a challenge to most.
I am grateful that I am not the SA head of police, CEO of Eskom, State President…. But we all have our responsibilities and there are times when we all get criticized for our actions or decisions. If the criticism is fair and you can react in a positive way, I believe criticism gives us much required outside perspective and an opportunity to make friends.
Criticism isn’t always an exact science, though. Sometimes it is not based on figures and stats. Sometimes we critique books and movies, art, restaurants and wine. Of course, there are blatant wrongs. But often many of these things are critiques on personal taste, likes or dislikes. And it is difficult when you are the author, director, artist, chef or winemaker and you are critiqued on you art – something you take seriously, it is your passion and your expression. Sometimes something is just wrong: a wine is just unbalanced or a dish is without texture, but sometimes the critic’s personal taste is at play, and they just don’t enjoy lighter red wines or aubergine…
My experience is of course mostly in wine and tourism. In both instances you are putting yourself out there. You make wine and you put your brand on it, give it what you believe a fair price for the quality and then do your utmost to market the product. You send it to wine critics and media, you enter the wine into competitions and in your communication and advertisement, you tell people about the wine. Of course, you have to be confident in the product, but while I believe wine critics can judge a product on its qualities rather than their personal taste, it is a tall order for many other people. When someone here and there does not enjoy the wine, it is easy enough to put it down to their taste, but what happens if your wine gets a poor review from an acknowledged and rated critic? It is not a pleasant experience – especially if you had high expectations. I think the best takeaway would be to try and understand the critique, taste the wine with those comments in mind, perhaps even contact the critic and talk or taste with them. In the end, you might decide to dismiss the remarks because you still believe in the style or because the wine is still popular with the public, etc., but at least you gave yourself the opportunity to learn rather than just being despondent.
I guess the same principles apply to food critics, but when it comes to restaurants and experiences, there are another element that can change the picture. In inviting guests and tourists to enjoy your offering, you are presenting them to so much more than just your wine and food. Ambience is important, the look and feel, your staff and service, how flexible you are to accommodate specific needs, easy parking, facilities for those with disabilities, basic things like hygiene, safety and then the finer things and attention to detail like background music, and I am only scratching the surface. Sometimes you get judged on all of these when you enter tourism competitions or challenges. Sometimes you invite critics and journalists and bloggers and influencers to experience your offering. But your everyday guests are the ones who frequent your restaurant or wine tasting room and when they are not happy, they either complain to their server or the manager and often, they will share their views on social media. Much of someone’s experience is subjective and it is of course the job of those in hospitality to make sure that someone is bowled over by your hospitality, but it isn’t always the case. Some things are out of your hands, difficult children, people arriving without bookings, pets coming along when it is against your policy… Of course, your staff should be able to deal with this, but guests aren’t always happy and your staff isn’t always perfect. Once again, you have the opportunity to learn from critique and alter our adapt your offering, if necessary, train staff, reconsider your experience. You can even make fans out of unhappy customers, but it depends on how you acknowledge and respect the critic, regardless of who it is and what platform they use.
The critic has an important responsibility. Not only do they have to be honest and accurate, but they also require expertise of the topic and some sincerity and insight. If you understand the challenges of a specific vintage, perhaps you will not blame the winemaker when the wine shows some of those vintage specific characteristics. You need to be an art expert to critique a piece of art. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but if you are not an expert and are just sharing your personal taste and thoughts, neither you nor the artist should take your opinion too seriously. Critique is important – it holds us to justice, and it keeps us on our toes performance wise. But it must be fair.
When it comes to responding to criticism in general, I believe you have a unique opportunity to make friends rather than enemies. It is never pleasant to hear negative comments about something you hold dear or about something into which you invested much time and effort. Acknowledge where necessary – even when you can’t help but be emotional about it. Be honest. Be human. Be informed. If you have the facts and figures, you’ll be empowered to react in a trustworthy way, and it might just prevent an over emotional response. Stick to the issue. Don’t bring politics and race or similar emotive issues into the argument. It is good to be calm, but emotion can be positive too – it just has to honest and not egotistical.
When the critique comes from a fair and informed critic, perhaps even when you don’t agree, if you can manage your hurt feelings and consider the remarks, you might just learn and improve – to your own benefit.