Normal criticism can be escaped by breaking off communications with people or sometimes changing behaviors. Criticism might rear its ugly head when you least expect it but it rarely is something that never leaves you. After all we are human and everyone makes mistakes. Some criticism is part of life.
Relentless criticism is different. It is often not about a mistake and it does not stop. It can be about something you cannot change or something which you cannot even discover. Maybe it is at your place of work or perhaps you are an elected official. I have been a victim of relentless criticism twice in my life. I think it is useful to look at my experiences.
It was the summer of 2003, I had been at Apple since November of 1984. I had reached the pinnacle of my career, I was director of Apple Federal sales. I was one of two or three field sales directors in Apple USA. I made it to that level by achieving amazing sales results with almost no people and even less support from the corporate offices. The dedicated team of sales professional who made that success were among the best I ever worked with anywhere. That summer Apple created a new enterprise vice president position and promoted a former Oracle employee to the position.
That same summer I ended up reporting to this new vice president. It turned out to be my first experience with relentless criticism. For some reason and it might have been appearance. Years on the road had let me the weight that I had lost in college and kept off in the years of farming creep back. However, none of us could ever could figure figure out why the new vice president decided to make my life as miserable as possible.
When we had the required weekly conference calls with him, it was made clear that I could not speak. It was like he was grilling my team to learn if I was doing something wrong but wanted me to sit helplessly in the room during the interrogation. I had to pass hand written notes to help the team answer questions. There were different rules for our team and at one annual sales meeting in Cupertino, he called us into in an after hours meeting described in his own words as a behind the woodshed thrashing. We were even left stranded with no transportation after being forced to sit through the meeting where we were told how worthless we were. That followed a sales meeting where Tim Cook had awarded me the toilet plunger award.
I was punished at every turn. I even offered to resign but it seemed that the enterprise vice president enjoyed the sport of torturing me. My escape came when the vice president just decided six months after taking the job to not show up for work one day and moved himself to Florida. By then I was damaged goods at Apple and when I got a new boss it was clear that the first priority he had been given was to fire me. I was gone from Apple by the summer of 2004 even though my team had more than tripled Apple's federal sales in a little over four years. You can find the full story in my book, the Pomme Company, a $5.99 Kindle book, that Apple tried to scare me away from publishing. It was only through the encouragement of some true friends that the book did get published. It has never been challenged by Apple.
I recovered from Apple and have gone on to other successes. However, twenty-two years later I once again found myself a victim of relentless criticism. It came with an elected office where I worked untold hours to meet my obligations. It happened in my third year on the HOA board in our community. It turned into what I described in a Raleigh News & Observer article as My Descent in HOA Hell. We were caught between warring factions and got nothing but criticism even though we were doing a stellar job putting the HOA back on its feet after years of mismanagement. There was nowhere to retreat, we had to live through the incessant complaints until our term was up.
So what lessons have I learned from all of this?
- Rumors and lies if told enough times can do irreparable harm to even the best of reputations.
- When untruths are being told, a few of your supposed friends will desert you because of the fear of being associated with you (see Do Apple Employees Need a Witness Protection Program?).
- Sometimes you just have to do the job and know that few if any may ever really appreciate what you have done.
- No one is perfect and when people try to tar people for making a mistake, you need to be most suspicious of the people doing the tarring.
- People who seek to harm the reputations of others are often some of the most dangerous people you will ever face.
- Those people who appreciate what you have done and stand with you will likely be your friends for life.
- You should never be afraid to do what needs to be done even if others are criticizing you continually.
- Judging people by what others say is lazy and you need to do your own research and make up your own mind. Do not let others tell you what to think.
- Those who make quick judgments are often hearing what they want to hear rather what they need to hear.
- Some bosses are like talk show hosts. Ratings are far more important than the truth or real results.
- It is impossible to walk in the shoes of others so the benefit of a doubt is worth its weight in gold.
- Human beings have to work hard to resist the mob impulse to attack people for no good reason.
Having been through these experiences, I have to wonder how it might be to be black, Mexican, Muslim, gay or even a woman and face relentless and inescapable criticism for something that is part of your being. As a white male I escaped both of my bouts of relentless criticism. The two bouts together were only twenty-one months out of my sixty-seven years. What must it be like to be a woman who has fought her whole life to be successful against a world that wanted women to stay at home? What is it like to wake up every day to people who resent your success, question your motives, or just do not think you should be doing what you are doing because you are woman? For women and others in our society, even when the glass ceiling is broken, the criticism never stops.
If nothing else, perhaps we should pause a moment when the whole world seems to be piling on someone and at least listen to their story, examine their history, and look at what they have been doing. I wish someone had done that in my Apple career and when I was a director in our HOA. Those few that did made a difference in my view of humanity.
Perhaps this post will help at least one person take the time to think and investigate on their own before quickly jumping on a mob band wagon of harsh opinion.