A few years ago, I was attending a meeting which was a few minutes’ drive from my office. I left a little later than I intended, and although the roads were quiet, when I arrived I had to park further way from my destination than I had expected. The extra walk meant that I arrived at the meeting, which had started promptly, a couple of minutes late.
Naturally, I apologised for my lateness and explained what had happened as I sat down, thinking little of it. It was only two minutes after all. I was completely taken aback when the chair of the meeting replied in an angry voice “Two minutes can cost a life”.
I should explain that he was an ex-military man, and I can understand that being late for a rendez-vous on active service could have very serious consequences. However, not only were no lives going to be lost as a result of my lateness to that meeting; no lives were likely to be lost as a result of anyone there being late to any meeting, ever.
Use criticism carefully
I might have been held up by a phone call to an important customer; I might have been resolving an important safety issue; I don’t remember. In business we are always having to balance multiple priorities, and I probably made a priority choice that I felt was in the best interests of the company. So first of all, it is always a good idea to understand the reasons for what has happened before criticising.
But just as important is to make the criticism (if there needs to be one) commensurate with the offence and appropriate to the circumstances. Criticising me in a way that might conceivably have been appropriate in the army, but took no account of a completely different context, diminished my respect for the manager and left me feeling angry at his irrationality. As a result, at the very least it reduced the value of my contribution to that meeting, while I fumed; it probably had much longer-term consequences for our wider relationship.
Criticism is a dangerous weapon. Used carelessly, the unintended consequences can be serious.