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.