By Dennis Chung
ONE of the things I encourage my staff to do is feel free to be critical of me as CEO of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), which leads to having an environment where we can all be critical of each other.
We therefore have an open atmosphere where we can all speak to each other about; ideas for growth: what areas we think someone can improve in and, importantly, to recognise achievements. This creates an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable about contributing to the progress of the organisation.
I see the same philosophy with many private sector leaders I have worked with — such as Dennis Lalor and Don Wehby — who always ask for feedback before making any comments whenever we discuss any issue. I find that the present PSOJ officers, led by William Mahfood, are also always interested in feedback. This philosophy is what makes for their own success in many respects, as the ability to listen, especially to suggestions for improvement, is probably one of the most important traits you will see in any successful leader.
In fact, I have found that many persons who have failed have an inability to constructively accept criticism. In other words, they usually end up “shooting down” the messenger and not listening to the message. This, of course, results in them only attracting “yes men” — when nothing could be more damaging to that person’s development.
While that criticism may come across as harsh, it may be necessary given the circumstances. I we want to develop, we have to learn to listen to the criticism, rather than just the form in which it is delivered. That is not to say that criticism must not be respectful and constructive, but even that is sometimes essential for overall development.
One instance I can think of when harsh criticism is necessary is when a group of us are cycling. There may be a group of 20 to 30 people all moving at upwards of 25 mph and just 6 to 12 inches behind each other’s wheel. In those circumstances, we can understand when we do something wrong and the person behind us tells us two “choice words”. While we might tell them one back, we realise that any error can cause serious physical damage. In such a situation no one is offended by what they are told.
This inability to accept constructive criticism is one of the things that has held back the development of our country. The emails I receive about governance issues are always the same, no matter which political party is in power. What is amazing is that the same person can have two very different thought processes on the same issue depending solely on which party is in power. This is one of the primary roadblocks to our own development as a people and country.
It is strange that the politicians themselves are much more receptive to the constructive criticism than the people who follow them. And it is not that the politicians tell them to think that way. In fact, it is much easier and acceptable for me to sit down with the politicians and give them my own views — which they accept — than to have a discussion with some other people who are supposedly intelligent thinkers.
This says a lot about our level of development as a people.
I must admit, however, that there has been much improvement since the 1970s and 1980s, for example, when we used to kill each other over our individual political views. The irony is that many of those who would want to go back to that way of thinking do not understand how much people suffered during those times, as they were either not born yet or were not old enough. I was young during the 1970s, but I can remember those days very well, and so people like me will appreciate the need for the constructive dialogue that many have sacrificed for.
If we are to develop as a country and to achieve the elements espoused in Vision 2030, then we can’t focus only on infrastructural and economic development, but we must also change how we think and communicate with each other.
The economic reform programme is an example. My own view is that the economic agenda, as outlined by Minister Phillips, is certainly the direction that we want to move in. Fiscal and legislative reform is essential and is a necessary ingredient to form the basis of any economic and social development. It might not be sufficient, but I don’t think that there can be any argument about the need for these reforms.
There is also a need for public sector transformation, skills training, and focusing on certain strategic investment decisions, such as the Agro Parks, KCT, highway development etc.
But even though all agree that there is a need for public sector transformation and efficiency, there is disagreement when initiatives under the reform are being undertaken, without any rational explanation for the disagreement or any alternative being offered. So the question is, what is the difference to someone agreeing that greater efficiency and better management is needed in the public sector and recognising that same need for management around ChickV and the Riverton Fire — which both cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars?
The short answer is that the only difference is our inability to accept criticism constructively, which is really what places us at a disadvantage.
On the other hand, there are some of us who will also criticise any policy put in by a government that we do not support — even though we would support it if put in place by a government that we support. And this disease seems to be contagious as it is also affecting the US now.
If we want to move forward and develop as a country, we must be able to accept good and bad criticisms, and look at the message not the messenger.
Dennis Chung is a chartered accountant and is currently Vice President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica. He has written two books: Charting Jamaica’s Economic and Social Development – 2009; and Achieving Life’s Equilibrium – balancing health, wealth, and happiness for optimal living – 2012. Both books are available at Amazon in both digital and paperback format. His blog is dcjottings.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.