Iron jaws and the ability to accept constructive critisism


I had this guy working for me, to mask his identity let’s call him Adam. I can safety say that he was the “worst” guy that I had worked with in 20 years of running a software company

He …

  • Made the same mistakes over and over again
  • Failed to follow instructions properly
  • Didn’t think through things before he did them
  • Didn’t review his work or anything else before it was published
  • Didn’t plan out his work, make check-lists or refine protocols

My day would frequently begin with seeing some critical and obvious mistake he made and then call him up to, once again, admonish him and try to get him to correct his ways.

I would begin many conversations with the question “Are you going to quit?”. Because if he was, he could at least have done it then, saving us another torturous session of feedback. His answer was always “No, Brian”.

My philosophy on terminations was to terminate for Values problems, not mistakes, and if the employee exhibited at least some of our core values and was expending effort and working hard, to not terminate. In fact, in all of my years, I have never fired anyone, no matter how bad, if they were working hard. And I’ve never regretted that decision.

Fucking up

Over time, and I mean quite a bit of time, mistakes began to be diminished, but more importantly Adam internalized my feedback and transferred it to new team members, who were able to learn and progress faster because of it.

Throughout this process, the mistakes that Adam didn’t make were that he never …

  • personalized feedback. He took constructive criticism in the spirit it was given, no matter how harshly it was delivered
  • got defensive, talked back, argued or ever demonstrated any “attitude”
  • slowed down. He continued to work hard throughout
  • Made excuses or equivocated e.g. I ran out of time, it wasn’t my fault, it could be worse etc
  • said “Sorry”. Apologizing doesn’t help anyone or anything and just wastes time. He seemed to innately understand this, so I never had to waste time listening to apologies, allowing us to just focus on fixing the problem

I refer to Adam’s actions as “Fucking up” vs “Fucking down”

Too many times I see people react negatively to constructive criticism which essentially precludes their ability to grow and ultimately succeed. Also, I’m generally not interested in mentoring someone who is resistant to feedback, nor, for that matter, working with them. Such people have “glass jaws”. They shatter into many pieces when you criticize them. Adam had an “iron jaw”. He could take any feedback, no matter how tough, and not wilt in the face of it, let alone fall to pieces.

“Turning good”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Adam grew, progressed and developed to a level where I was able to not only stop admonishing him on a daily basis but begin to validate his growth and progress, a process I call “Turning good”. This culminated in him being promoted to a full Level I analyst, no easy feat in our company. His work continues to improve and progress to this day and can be seen in the amazing results of the content marketing effort driven by him and his team.

Adam didn’t turn into the “best” guy I ever worked with, but his success stories are one of the best that I experienced in my career. Nobody was prouder of him getting promoted than I was

Time wasted vs invested

I spent a ton of time with Adam. He invested a ton of time himself. But his actions and the fact that he didn’t quit (and I didn’t fire him) turned what could have very well been wasted time, into simply time invested and in fact, well invested.

Failure vs success

If at any point during this process, Adam had quit, he would have failed. And I would have failed as a leader, mentor, boss. But the fact that he didn’t quit, meant that he never actually failed. And he continued long enough avoiding failure, that he eventually succeeded.

Other lessons learned

  • Take constructive criticism, no matter how tough, objectively and not personally
  • Remember that when a boss is criticizing you it isn’t because they don’t like you, it is because they are trying to help you (applies to good bosses only)
  • When you are taking heat, keep working through it and if you are successful, you may emerge successful in the long term
  • Never get defensive, argue, talk back or demonstrate an attitude. That will make a bad situation worse
  • Keep your eye on long term success
  • Remember the saying “No pain. No gain”. It is true in many situations
  • You don’t fail if you don’t quit
  • Stay true to company values, no matter what, and that will guide you to eventual success
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