Was I about to enter into a conflict?
The CEO stopped me in the hallway, and asked if I could step into his office. “Sit down,” he said, as he closed the door. His tone let me know there was something on his mind. Where was this going, I wondered?
I had been working with Kaley as an executive coach. She was one of the youngest team leaders at his firm. Working with an international team of fifteen software engineers, she seemed to be on a fast track to even greater responsibility. “I heard some news that surprised me, and I need to know what role you played in all of this.”
I wasn’t exactly encouraged by that opening. But I was curious.
He wanted to know if I was aware of Kaley’s recent exchange with her supervisor.
“Kaley’s boss offered her some feedback,” he said, looking out the window at the skyscraper next door. “She asked Kaley directly, ‘Can I offer you some constructive criticism?’ And Kaley said, ‘No. No, you can’t.'”
He stopped to look at me. Seemed to me he wasn’t done, and I was right.
The Source of the Conflict?
“You’re her executive coach,” he continued, “and we’re paying you to help her with her leadership communication skills. So I’m a little baffled here: how does shutting down a feedback conversation help her career?”
I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my seat. “May I ask you a question?” I said, asking him a question.
I took his squint and slight head tilt as an affirmative.
“Is there such a thing as constructive criticism?”
The CEO leaned back in his chair, and smiled broadly. He shook his head and started to laugh. “That’s exactly my point,” he said, pointing at me. “I thought you might say something like that. And I’m glad you did. Because that’s what Kaley proceeded to explain to her boss. What did you tell her that sparked that conversation?”
I explained that our last coaching session had focused on how Kaley could handle feedback in ways that were more empowering, for herself and her team. We discussed how the only thing that criticism constructs is defensiveness, at least in the short term.
So, I wasn’t surprised at what Kaley had said, because she heard it from me: in the moment it’s delivered criticism only makes people fight back.
To my surprise, the CEO agreed 100%.
Being Critical of Criticism
I breathed a sigh of relief. The CEO saw what top performers recognize: criticism is the opposite of inspiration. Corrective conversation is necessary, but there’s a way to deliver that message that creates understanding, not pushback. Carmen Simon, the author of Impossible to Ignore, says that the past is only useful to the extent that it helps us to create the future. Is your conversation focused on fixing the past, or learning from it so you can deliver new results?
When troubling behavior shows up, here’s where top leaders focus:
- What’s the Root Cause of the Problem? In my work as an executive coach, my focus is always on the root cause – and, if you think about it, the root cause of every conflict at work is always a misunderstanding. It might be as simple as not understanding how a forklift works, or how to modify customized fields in Salesforce. Or it might be a little more complex, such as not understanding how to communicate more effectively with the C-Suite, or how a Vice President might become a more effective coach. Typically, people know what they need to do, and how to do it. So what’s the root cause of poor performance – and how can leaders help team members to avoid it? Jeanette Bronnee is a culture expert who has spoken at the United Nations on the topic of self-care and organizational awareness. “The key to helping your employees,” she says, “is asking the right why.” Supporting people means supporting them even when they make mistakes. The challenge for leaders today? Share that support first, and eliminate defensiveness, so that new solutions are discovered together. Go straight at the root cause – and come up with a root cause solution – together.
- Feedback Is A Gift: Top-performing leaders understand that inspiration is what motivates. Fear, threats and criticism are never a long-term strategy. Do you hope to capture the hearts and minds of your team by scaring them towards new performance and innovation? The main misunderstanding that’s really threatening your team members are these two words: don’t know. People often don’t know that they are capable of more. They don’t know how to take the action that will solve the problem. They don’t know of new options and avenues for addressing challenges. What can you share that helps them to overcome what they don’t know? Is there a skills gap – or is it that they don’t know that they are capable of using the tools they already have in new ways? The leader shows those ways, and inspires action from the team.
- Sharing Surprises And Making Discoveries: What can you do, right now, to build up your team, and reinforce what people are doing right? Inspire them in a way that goes beyond cheerleading camp and empty mantras (because everyone knows what BS smells like – insincere platitudes will kill your career). Top leaders are engaging teams that say, “I see you, and I see what you really can do. Even though you don’t see it yet. How can I help you to eliminate obstacles? What can we do together that’s going to strengthen your stance and help you to take even greater ownership of this task in the future?” That’s a message that – if it’s sincere and authentic – is one that everyone wants to hear. Leaders avoid lame and empty platitudes, because they know that slogans are not the same as solutions. Set the context for your feedback with a sincere and authentic understanding that your team is capable of more.
Course corrections are a part of every journey, and that’s true for anyone’s career. Those corrections need to happen, and it’s the leaders responsibility to steer the ship. Nobody is so naive as to think that pouring positivity on a problem is the only way to solve it. But shifting away from criticism is a good starting point. Isn’t it true that what you really want are new results and different behaviors? Ask yourself where those behaviors will come from. When does fear, scolding and a slap on the nose really work?
Next time you need to lead others, consider the language that can inspire and build new behavior. Criticism constricts. Encouragement expands.