Critic or Partner? What's the Impact?

By Wally Hauck, Ph.D.

Why Leaders Must be Partners and Not Critics if they Want Employee Engagement

In late August 2011, Hurricane Irene slammed into the east coast. It hit Connecticut hard. It ended up being rated the fifth costliest hurricane in United States history.

A facilities manager at one of my clients took two days to prepare the 20 acres of grounds for the storm. He arranged for his employees to dig ditches to move water away from the buildings. Five inches of rain was expected to fall in just a few hours. He had all the generators checked. He arranged for his staff to be on-call over the next 36 hours. He arranged for a back-hoe to be maintained and ready. He scheduled the staff for cleanup duties on the day after the storm. He told his wife he'd see her Monday and made arrangements to sleep in his office.

A member of the Board of Directors of the company came to see the damage two days after the storm. After a brief tour he remarked, "The grass is too long. It should have been cut before now."  What did that criticism do for the motivation of the facilities manager? What did it do for the engagement of his employees?

I heard this joke about criticism. Before you criticize someone be sure to "walk a mile in their shoes." When you are done, you will be a mile away, they won't be able to hear you, and you will have a new pair of shoes. The facilities manager wished the board member was a mile away before delivering that comment.

Criticism damages engagement. Leaders who use it for performance feedback will create injury that is difficult to heal and will likely damage performance in immeasurable ways. Leaders who replace criticism with partnership will improve engagement.

Two Types of Criticism

There are two types of criticism, solicited and unsolicited. Unsolicited is more damaging because it is either unexpected, unwanted, or both. Solicited means the person asks for your opinion about a specific characteristic, trait, behavior, or result. Solicited is at least requested and somewhat expected and is, therefore, often less damaging. Solicited should be delivered carefully and respectfully while unsolicited criticism should be avoided. Unsolicited criticism carries with it serious drawbacks.

Criticism means one person can judge another because s/he is smarter and/or knows more. It reinforces a hierarchy. In a hierarchy (which most organizations are), it is difficult to avoid unsolicited criticism because the boss is responsible for delivering it at least once per year with the typical performance appraisal. In a hierarchy, the boss is expected to be omniscient. Employees often rely on the boss for answers and the boss often inserts him/herself into the middle of problems. Our hierarchies encourage unsolicited criticism, and that reinforces the need for the hierarchy.

Although it is important to draw a distinction between solicited and unsolicited criticism, all criticism can be damaging depending upon the way it is delivered. Negative feedback (criticism) in performance reviews significantly bothers even the best of employees according to psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A and M University. They found even top performers experienced lower morale and reduced motivation with the delivery of negative feedback probably because it was delivered in an unsolicited (although required) performance review.

Three Drawbacks

The drawbacks of unsolicited criticism damage productivity and profitability.

They are a reduction in trust (damaged relationship), a loss of focus on the specific possibilities for change, and a reluctance to communicate in the future. All three of these factors damage the opportunity for learning and contribute to lower engagement.

Criticism (especially senior managers) damages trust whereas partnerships build up trust. Partners communicate openly, show concern for each other, work together to solve problems with respectful inquiry, listen, align their actions, and share responsibility for results. Critics point blame and find fault. Partners accept responsibility and find new (better) answers.

Criticism is a form of blame. It often assumes the person could or should have known something which would have avoided the bad behaviors and/or poor results. It puts the focus on the person instead of the environment or the system within which the person works. The board member's criticism of the facilities manager suggests that he could have done a better job if only he were the one in charge the day of the storm. It oversimplifies a complex situation and demeans. It takes the focus off the real opportunity for improvement, i.e. a study of the processes. The criticism actually blocks the natural energy and motivation of the facilities manager to improve the results next time.

If mistakes are met with criticism, future truthful communication will likely be inhibited. People tend to hide mistakes if they fear blame or criticism. Open and honest communication is a fragile aptitude which must be nurtured. A healthy seed cannot grow on cold concrete.

The Alternative

A combination of data, powerful questions, and a neutral (non-accusatory and fact-finding) tone of voice are three behaviors which provide a powerful alternative. If a leader's intention is to positively change the future s/he must create a safe environment. These behaviors taken together do it. They protect the trust and prevent damage to engagement.

For example, if the board member had asked, "Can you tell me what happened and how we can help you now?" He would have started a valuable conversation with the facilities manager. He could have asked, "What are your priorities now?" If the board member was especially concerned with the long grass he might have asked, "Is cutting the grass high on your priority list? Do you see that as a priority? What help do you need to get that done too?" He could have used the question to lead to the suggestion without any damage to the trust, relationship and or engagement. Using criticism is short-term thinking. The alternatives are long-term and consistent with partnerships.

Leaders who want optimum learning and engagement must change their behaviors when they deliver performance feedback. Emphasizing data, using probing questions, using a calm, supportive tone while avoiding opinions will create a learning environment that protects engagement and avoids fear, resentment, and loss of productivity.
Dr. Wally Hauck is a Communico facilitator and author of Art of Leading: 3 Principles for Predictable Performance Improvement and Stop the Leadership Malpractice: How to Replace the Typical Performance Appraisal. You can follow him on Facebook.
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