Friday, 13 February 2015

My take on critique groups

I'm tied up with the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular at the moment, partaking not performing, so here is a blog post I prepared earlier.

At my real job we have a system for new staff where every piece of work they put onto our computer system is checked until they achieve a level of 90% accuracy (as worked out by our system – it’s more like 99.5% across all possible fields on a risk.) Once they attain that exulted level we then put them onto ‘Buddy Signing’ and this is where we sometimes strike problems.

When you’re new at a job, especially one that involves attention to detail and memorising great swathes of information, you expect someone with more experience to tell you when you’re doing things wrong. Nobody likes it, but you deal with it because – duh – it’s your job.

You also take criticism from direct customers. You got something wrong on their policy, you handle the phone-call to explain why and what you’re going to do about it. Again this is perfectly fair and exactly what everyone in any type of customer service role expects.

The problem with ‘Buddy Signing’ is that you’re being judged by someone who doesn’t have more experience. Nor do your errors have a direct impact on their policy.

The problem with a buddy, is that they’re exactly like you.

And that means that when someone in the same boat as you pours criticism, even well-deserved, even well-meaning, even expected, on your work you feel belittled. Because they’re no better than you. By their very nature they are your true peers, with no more and no less experience than you have, so where do they get off telling you what to do?

What does that do to a nice working relationship? It causes havoc. We have buddy signers whose work we have to go back to having an experienced processor check because their error rates sky-rocket. Is this because they suddenly become useless? No – it’s because they pick on every little thing as a tit-for-tat measure against their buddy.

We also have buddy signers whose rates of output freefalls dangerously close to absolute zero. Why? Is it because they suddenly have the task of signing someone’s work in addition to their usual duties? Not often. It’s usually because they’re spending every minute of the day compulsively checking their work in case they’ve made an error, because so-and-so marked them down for one the other day and it’s knocked their confidence level to nil.

Or we have buddy signers who start processing so much work that no one can keep up with their output. This is okay because their errors decrease along with the increase in output until they are fully proficient members of staff. They also become self-signing. This is actually the thing we’re trying to achieve whilst often managing instead to drive the behaviours above.

It’s this third one that everyone joining a critique group thinks they’re going to get. Well, you’re not. As soon as you realise that everyone in your critique group is in the same position that you’re in they’re going to pick on option one or two and you’re all going to drive each other crazy. Yes, you’ll feel great when somebody compliments your work, but often in groups there’s a rule (even if unspoken) that you don’t hand someone criticism unless you also hand them encouragement.

When I was a team leader this was the way we were originally taught to give feedback to staff on their job performance. It’s called sandwiching, and it’s meant to ensure that you don’t pump up a staff member so much they’re not aware they’re making errors, but also not dragging them down so low that they feel they’re not getting anywhere and start to think about jumping ship and trying something new.

It doesn’t work.

The best practice we now teach is that you hand staff members ONE piece of feedback. If it’s good it’s the only good thing. If it’s bad it’s the only bad thing.


Because people who are overly complimentary about their own standards of behaviour will never hear bad feedback when it’s sandwiched with good feedback. And people with low confidence will never hear good feedback when it comes parcelled with bad. So you tell people, as soon as the feedback incident occurs, what your opinion is. Good or bad, but not both. So they actually hear what you’re saying.

If you’re in a critique group try to keep that in mind. Remember that if you’ve got one piece good, one piece bad, it doesn’t convey meaning. Not without knowing if they had to spend three hours trying to find something good to say about your work. Not without knowing if they thought the whole thing was fantastic but felt they had to criticise something because, well because that’s the point of a critique group, isn’t it?

So I don’t think critique groups give you accurate feedback without slanting for retribution, lowering your output, or leaving you confused as to which way you’re heading. But I would still recommend you join one.

The one thing they’re really good for is exposing you to other people’s opinions, and helping you to grow a thick skin. You’ll be getting a lot of one, and needing a lot of the other, if you’re releasing anything into the wild.

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