Einstein And The Way to Criticise Other’s Ideas -A Leadership Lesson

Einstein had struggled for almost a decade to get a job in an academic institution. He had endured countless rejections. He was worried that his life might get stuck in the patent office. Eventually, in 1909, Einstein got a job at Zurich University as an Assistant Professor. He felt relieved albeit, temporarily.

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Max Planck and Einstein -Image from SciencePhotoLibrary

Though Einstein published four revolutionary papers -Quantum theory of light, proof of the presence of atoms, mechanism of Brownian motion, and the final thing, the concept of space and time, the principles of special relativity in the year 1905, he was yet to get any notable recognition. He thought that his revolutionary paper on relativity in 1905 would bring instant fame. Unfortunately, very few people read those papers. Fame never came. Subsequently, he began to temper his ambitions.

However, by 1908, a couple of well-known scientists had started interacting with Einstein after reviewing his papers. One of them was Max Planck, a renowned scientist of that period.

One day, while teaching his students, Einstein told them, “This morning I received some work from Max Planck in which there must be some mistake. Let’s read it together and see if you can spot the fault.”

After pouring through the content several times, the students told Einstein, “Herr Professor, You must be mistaken. There’s no error in it”.

“Yes, It is”, Einstein pointed out the discrepancy.

The students were amazed to see it. They immediately suggested, “Let’s write to Professor Plank and tell him of the mistake”.

Telling somebody of their mistake -It is easy to criticize a person’s ideas or suggestions, but if you aren’t careful, it’s going to break the relationship and your future opportunities. We might have encountered many instances where people got upset and defensive when we gave them honest feedback.

“Criticisms often go awry not because others dislike the content of the conversation, but because they believe that the content (even if it’s delivered in a gentle way) suggests that you have malicious intent” -From the book ‘Crucial Conversations’.

MUTUAL PURPOSE -The first thing before giving feedback on an idea to anyone is to step back and think about Mutual Purpose. Patterson writes that to succeed in criticisms, we must care about the interests of others -not just our own.

He adds, “Before you begin criticizing, examine your motives. Ask yourself the following questions.”

  • What do I want for me?
  • What do I want for the other person?
  • What do I want for the relationship?

It would help you see the idea/problem from another person’s perspective. It would change your tone of criticism.

Now coming back to Einstein -After years of wilderness and not being able to get a job or recognition, Einstein had by then become slightly tactful, especially with those people who were above him, such as Max Planck. Einstein needed Max Planck’s support to grow in his career. An answer for -What do I want for me?

At the same time, if you think what Max Planck would need -Not many people were aware of Einstein at that time. So, Planck was lucky to be in close association with him. It appeared that he wanted to use Einstein’s skills to grow further in his career. There’s a mutual purpose here.

HELPFUL CRITICISM -Ideally, whatever criticism we give should be useful/helpful to the other person. The best thing is to provide an alternate solution, if possible. And, one more thing, instead of saying the whole thing as wrong, point out only specifics. Let’s see what Einstein did.

Einstein replies to his students, “We won’t tell Planck that he made a mistake,”.

It is one of the essential points -If you tell somebody that they are wrong, you have struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment, pride, and self-respect. That will make them want to strike back. But it will never make them change their minds. It is a direct way of making enemies for ourselves. It also means that you are saying that you’re smarter than him or her. It arouses opposition and makes the listener fight with you -Dale Carnegie.

Einstein continues, “Instead of saying him wrong, we will say the result is correct, but the proof is faulty. We’ll simply write and tell him how the real proof should run. I think it will help him a great deal. The main thing is the content, not the mathematics.”

Note that Einstein is offering a possible alternate solution that would help Max Planck.

MUTUAL RESPECT -Another critical factor that would play a pivotal role in giving criticisms -Mutual Respect. Though Planck requested his feedback, Einstein never thought that he was above Planck. He admired Planck and his work. If you don’t genuinely respect people for their personality and their work, it would show unknowingly in your criticism.

“Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation/criticism, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose -it is now about defending dignity.” -From the book ‘Crucial Conversations’

Whomever it might be -If you carry disrespect for them in your subconscious mind, it’s going to reflect in your feedback and would impact your future influence on them.

Are you finding it difficult to respect somebody? Einstein respected people like Max Planck and Lorentz. He liked scientists, mathematicians who were similar to him, who were very good and passionate in their field, who loved to spend more time exploring the ideas. That’s the point: Like Einstein, look for ways where both of you are similar. Planck and Einstein had different personality traits. Yet, they were alike in academic pursuit and passion for research work. Find the similarities between you and the other person. It would help you to improve your respect for him/her subconsciously.

So, In a nutshell -While giving feedback or criticism to your colleague or somebody -Find the mutual purpose, Think about their interests, Have respect for them, and give feedback that could be used. Don’t say the whole thing is wrong -Just point out the specifics.

References: Einstein-His life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.

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