How often do you hold back criticism you probably should share?
How do you decide when to push harder and when to throttle back?
There is a magic balance every manager tries to strike between being supportive and being critical. On the one hand, we want to build a positive work environment for our teams so they can be creative. On the other hand, we also need to build a culture of performance, which most managers would agree, requires you to apply a certain amount of pressure.
The question for this week: Are you being critical enough on your team?
Do you ever look around at other leaders in your company and wonder how it’s possible they don’t see problems with their teams that seem so obvious to you?
Do you think other leaders look at your team and wonder the same thing?
My observation is that many (if not most) managers, are not critical enough of their teams. They are critical of other teams. They are critical of peers. They are critical of corporate policies. But, for whatever reason, managers tend to look at their own teams through rose colored glasses.
Today I’m going to walk through some key factors leaders should consider when calibrating that optimal level of critique. My goal is not to send you off to be tyrants. Far from it. In fact, I’ve written on several occasions, how being critical and being negative are not the same thing.
The question of how hard to push my team is something I battle with all the time. There aren’t clear cut answers I’m afraid. Every situation is different. The job of the leader is to read the pulse of the team and the needs of the business situation, and throttle criticism commensurately. I’m going to share some concepts for you to consider as you calibrate criticism to the level that makes the most sense for your team.
Engagement vs. Improvement
Employee engagement is critical – there is no news here. We want our teams to have purpose and autonomy and the opportunity to learn and grow in a positive way. But as engagement scores have become metrics we all monitor so closely (and publicly), it’s had an impact on the amount of pressure we feel comfortable placing on our teams. There is a debate playing inside the heads of most managers as they worry about how critical they can be of performance before the engagement score begins to fall. No manager wants their team at the bottom of the engagement list at the end of the year. So, its easy to hold back. It’s easy to push a little less. It’s easy to search for a positive spin whenever we can. It’s easy to coddle when we should criticize. I understand why we do this, but we need to be careful.
In the long run, in my experience at least, great accomplishment and meaningful development lead to higher engagement. Even when that comes at the end of a long, difficult struggle. If you try to game the engagement system by going soft on your team, you may lose in the long run. My advice to managers is to focus on building a high-performance team with a culture of learning and development. Make honest feedback a hallmark of your team culture. In the long run this will lead to higher performance and higher engagement.
Believing Your Own Press
If you’ve read my book or my blog, you’ll know I’m the biggest proponent of building visibility for yourself and your teams. You must promote your accomplishments across the company. But sometimes, managers start believing their own press a little too much. They get confused between promotion and truth and mistakenly throttle down the critical feedback.
In my experience, you want to praise and promote your team publicly as much as possible. This helps with engagement and helps build relevance and respect for your team in the company. When you do this, your team will see that you have their backs – that you’re their biggest fan. But you need to pair that with an equal dose of critical performance feedback.
One of the great things about being so aggressive in promoting your team internally is that it buys you the right to push them very hard. It’s a fair exchange. I’m very happy to be pushed hard by my manager if there is a commensurate reward/recognition on the other side. That’s the essence of a performance culture.
My advice to managers is to separate the public promotion of you team’s success from their development towards optimal performance. Don’t believe all your own press. Promote your team’s success but never stop pushing for greatness.
Focused Criticism vs. White Noise
It can be overwhelming to take on a new team or transform and underperforming one. There are so many areas you could be critical of, but should you? I’ve had several experiences like this in my career, and it takes a lot of patience to get it right. This is one case where I think you need to be more conservative in the volume of critical feedback you give out. If you’re critical about everything, nothing stands out. It becomes white noise to your team. Managers need to identify the areas that need the most improvement or that are most negatively impacting the business, and focus criticism on them.
It can be painful to watch inefficiencies happen and do nothing about them. But manager’s need to have the patience and perspective to take a pass sometimes. If your team has many challenges, my recommendation is to focus your critical feedback on one of two areas only. Just let the other stuff simmer until you can address it properly. This is not an argument for being less critical, rather for focusing your criticism to ensure you make progress instead of just creating noise.
Every manager has an inner dialogue about how critical to be. We see suboptimal behavior and performance everywhere. But, when you should react and when should you let it go? In general, I think managers need to dial up the criticism and do so in a more focused way.
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