Why Criticism Falls Flat

As leaders, when we see something wrong, we typically want to fix it – and quick. Often we want to clear the path to make our way to success as seamless and productive as possible. Yet we tend to forget how we correct something is just as important as fixing the issue.

In most roles of leadership, when we see a trait that needs to be changed, we just want a solution. When an employee is missing the mark or a team player is failing to play their part, often we jump to the fastest solution to get our team back on track. But we forget how we handle that correction has an immediate impact on the future of our team and on the future of our leadership.

While constructive criticism has been prioritized for decades now, there are several reasons why it may not be most effective for many. First, the moment anyone hears a critique is coming their way, all defenses go up. Secondly, it focuses on a negative perspective and reflection of their performance rather than a positive one. Lastly, now nearly everyone is aware of the sandwich delivery approach – positive, negative, positive. Immediate signs of these tactics can cause someone to shut down before we are even able to offer any constructive criticism.

As leaders, we are always searching for how to become more effective. But before we offer any kind of criticism, perhaps we should first consider how to best develop our own leadership.

Here are five principles to establish as a leader before jumping to critique:

1. Engage in essential people skills. While it may feel elementary, we can never learn enough about working with those around us. How we interact with others has a massive impact on the effectiveness of our leadership. By first homing in on the quality of your interaction with employees, you can then create a space where direction can be welcomed.

2. Invest in building trust. If your employees trust you, they are naturally more inclined to take direction. Find time, whether in the office or in meetings, to be curious about the people on your team.

3. Approach each generation appropriately. Most age groups do not communicate in the same way. Therefore, they likely do not receive criticism in the same way that you may. Recognize you may need to communicate differently to different ages.

4. Develop your emotional intelligence. In leadership we are bound to encounter a variety of personalities and unique situations. The only thing that can equip us other than experience is gauging our level of empathy and emotional intelligence. Granted, it is easier to offer critique when we are emotionally distant, but our awareness of the emotions of those around us can greatly impact our ability to communicate.

5. Don’t overestimate your efforts. A study by David Dunning, featured in Forbes, found that “MBA students greatly overestimate their emotional intelligence.”  Dunning’s study found that the worst performers assumed and overestimated their emotional intelligence by 62 percent. Always prepare yourself more than you may feel necessary.

It is easy to criticize people when they have fallen short. It’s natural to correct individuals who are failing to be a team player. But it is hard to maintain the feeling of teamwork and spirit, if critique – constructive or not – is all we are ever handing out.

While traditionally, a leader is expected to fix what is wrong, exactly how that correction is made is what will separate a great leader from the rest.

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