Bookshelf with hardbound journals all with the title "Criticism"

Lessons Learned Series: Criticism Doesn’t Work

This is the first in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #1, stay tuned for the entire series:

  1. Criticism doesn’t work
  2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
  3. People make their own choices
  4. Great leaders are servants

What you focus on becomes your reality. If you don’t want mistakes and sloppy work, don’t pay attention to them. If you want more excellent performance, start paying attention to what that looks like on your team.

When I first heard this at a weekend coaching for performance workshop I was a brand new manager of half a dozen communication professionals.

I simply could not believe what I was hearing. How can you let grammar and spelling mistakes, or worse yet, factual errors, go by without pointing it out to the staff member responsible this is unacceptable?

Isn’t it my job to bring the staff in line and make sure the work gets done properly? What if something gets published and it brings embarrassment to the client or bosses?

Then, something happened at that workshop that started to change my mind: the facilitator practiced what he preached.

At the beginning of the workshop he asked that everyone give plenty of time for fellow participants to comment and ask questions. He also let us know he’d be watching the time vigilantly to ensure we got through our full agenda.

But, there’s always THAT GUY. You know the one. He (or she, but in this case it was a he) can’t shut up, he just has to give his opinion or anecdote for every single item up for discussion. He has to debate every point.

“When is the facilitator going to remind that guy to shut up and let someone else talk?” I wondered when Mr. Talker made himself known only an hour into the session.

But the facilitator never did remind us of the expectations. After the first incident, he simply ignored Mr. Talker when he went on too long, and called upon others to speak, or went on with the agenda when it was time.

The effect was subtle, but profound, over the afternoon and second day of the workshop. Mr. Talker became more subdued. Everyone was engaged, the discussions were fulsome (even Mr. Talker made some good points, but didn’t dominate the discussion), and it was one of the best professional development activities I’ve ever taken part in.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I was fully able to integrate this lesson into my own leadership style .

I did say these were leadership lessons learned the hard way.

I see too many managers and supervisors using criticism and even browbeating in an attempt to get more out of their direct reports. I was guilty of this too, in that first leadership position many years ago, but it wasn’t that workshop that drove the lesson home.

A colleague gently but firmly pointed out to me that my style was counterproductive. That was hard to hear. But I had the good sense to listen and to amend my ways, and since then I’ve kept learning and growing that particular leadership muscle.

Turns out criticism pretty much never works. Pointing out all the things team members do wrong takes precious time and energy away from everything that’s going right, and moreover it makes people feel crappy and pretty soon they’ll hate coming to work.

The good news is, people change. I changed. Bringing out the best in people is a skill: practice makes – well, not perfect, but better. Really good even.

No one’s perfect.

I’ve had a lot of great bosses and mentors over the years, and the best of them focused on the positive, on the work that needed to get done, on how best to get it right, how much it matters to the core mission of the team. The worst of them pounced on everything I was doing wrong.

Guess which bosses I admire most and still keep in touch with to this day? Guess which teams were most fun to be in; the most productive?

That’s right: the ones that turn their time, energy, and attention to the great work that shows results.


Image credit: “criticism” by Paul Hermanson used under CC-BY-NC-2.0 license.

Co-creating your organization’s future

Here’s something daring for a Change Management professional to say: change can’t be managed.

You can (and must) lead your organization through a project, a re-organization, or a set of circumstances that changes your operation in fundamental ways. But in the end, “management” doesn’t work.

You may think you can control the process, and if so you may be in for a surprise. I won’t say an “unpleasant” surprise, because there’s always some good that comes out of “failure.” At the very least, you’ve gained valuable insights. At most, you and our organization have grown in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

You may be surprised that your team doesn’t see change the same way you do. You may see that some positions will need to be eliminated and you want to downplay that reality. You may not be contemplating a change in personnel at all – you only see the upside to change. You may be surprised that immediate cost savings are not apparent when you finally implement a change.

You will ask someone like me “How do I get my team to see this change as a great thing for our organization?”

And I will screw up my courage to be quite candid and say: “You can’t.”

You cannot decree how people in your organization are going to perceive the changes you are planning. You cannot manage disruption caused by the need to retrain for new processes and systems, or hide (for long) the fact that change may mean some people lose their jobs. You may not be anticipating job losses at all, and you can follow the best practices in change management, yet you will still get “resistance” and a drop in productivity.

Why? Because people are complicated, because your organization is complex, because most elements of an organization’s culture are hidden under the surface, and because people adapt to change in unexpected ways.

And then you will say to me: “Well if change can’t be managed, why should I hire you?”

And I will say: “Because your job as a leadership team is to create the conditions where you and your employees and stakeholders are co-creating your future together, and that’s what I can help you with, if you’re up for it. It’s never as straightforward as you think it is, but co-creating a resilient and healthy organization has rewards beyond a single project.”

No one gets to choose how another person will react to change. But you do get to choose how you structure your organization. As a leader, you are uniquely positioned to create conditions where change means progress and productivity, not fear and loathing. Do you encourage resilience? Is every part of your workplace aligned to a shared purpose? Do you empower your employees and stakeholders to act and think for themselves towards that shared purpose

Creating the conditions for employees and teams to take responsibility for their own success is quite frankly a scary proposition. That’s the paradox of leadership: letting go of the outcome makes for better outcomes.

If you’re prepared to be surprised, and to learn along with your team, then you’re prepared to lead through change, and I’m prepared to facilitate the process.

Appreciating change

To be quite candid, I did not know what I was in for when I signed up for the graduate certification in Organization Design program at Royal Roads University. Nevertheless, I opened my mind, did the work, and now I can safely say studying at RRU was indeed a “life changing” experience. I am now a proud OD practitioner with a Graduate Certificate in Organization Design and Development from Royal Roads University.

I rekindled my interest in how organizations work last year while on a nine-month assignment at Vancouver Island University filling in for a leader who was on leave. During that time I grappled with the usual things administrators face: changing technologies, shrinking budgets, increasing demands. I took a week-long change management course, which turned out to be a catalyst for a turning point in my career.

One thing I have learned, often with shocking clarity, time and again, is that people are resilient, and the more solid and trusting their relationships with their team and their coworkers, the more they can leverage their resiliency into effective and productive organizational change.
I wanted my leadership and change management skills to be intentional, consistent, and grounded in theory and practice.

I was intrigued by the RRU program, but I was expecting more “traditional” management/business program. During my first residency, I realized Organization Design (or OD) is much richer and more complex than I first imagined. I consider myself fortunate to have, in essence, stumbled upon this area of practice.

At first, I thought this “touchy-feely” stuff would be a waste of my time, to be quite honest. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. OD, expertly implemented, is good for morale, it fosters productivity, it enhances the bottom line.

It works.

Foundational to OD is what SFU professor and author Gervase Bush calls “the secret sauce”: a dialogic, rather than a diagnostic, mindset that uses methods like Appreciative Inquiry to tap into the strengths of people and groups.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to human systems: strategic planning, “change management,” community engagement, organization design, leadership, business, etc. It focuses on strengths rather than deficiencies. Appreciative Inquiry seeks out what works well and avoids dwelling on what’s wrong; it’s comprised of “interactions designed to bring out the best in people so that they can imagine a preferred future together that is more hopeful, boundless, and inherently good .. about socially constructing a shared future … through the questions asked” (from the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook).

The field of OD is based on the premise that the command-and-control management model that focuses on problems to be solved is a holdover from an industrial past. In a complex, creative, knowledge-based economy where change is a given, leadership in a resilient, healthy organization means being in continual relationship-building mode. It means increasing the capacity of the entire organization to engage in continuous learning, adaptation, engagement, and innovation. It means choosing leadership qualities like emotional intelligence, honesty, openness, trust, and empowerment rather than directive, hierarchical, task-oriented, and transactional management styles.

In the communications profession, we’ve realized for a long time that “broadcast” (one-to-many) methods don’t work anymore. Effective communication is many-to-many; it’s a dialogue. It’s widely distributed and it can’t be tightly controlled any more. So too is leadership and organization development.

I didn’t realize until I put it onto practice for myself that to consistently ask, per Appreciative Inquiry, “Where is the good here?” is the most productive question anyone in a leadership position could ask. In my latest leadership position, I deliberately and consciously switched from a “diagnostic” to a “dialogic” mindset and immediately saw how taking an appreciative, strengths-based approach raised morale, and thus could enhance organizational health and effectiveness. People have an enormous resilience and capacity for change; when they resist, it is an opportunity to listen to the reasons why and engage in charting a new course together.

In many ways, my taking the Organization Design program was an extension of the question that sparked my interest in sociology and politics twenty years ago: people spend their lives working and have a thirst for meaning. What can we do to make their working life more meaningful? How can we enlist the wisdom of our stakeholders: clients, employees, vendors, rivals, community – to weather the changes we need to make to thrive in an uncertain time?

Very few of us who are chosen for management positions deliberately hone our leadership skills, or are prepared to shepherd our departments through an ever-changing landscape. We get promoted because of our technical expertise. That’s important, but in the 21st century it’s not enough. OD shows how everyone, regardless of job title or position, can be encouraged to take a leading role in their organization, and can be aligned to organizational goals and purpose.

I am excited for the journey ahead – and I’m available for more assignments to use design thinking to help create a culture of learning and change in your organization.