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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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One of the hardest things for leaders (and all people, for that matter) to deal with is criticism. We all want to be right, do right and have others consistently agree with and admire us. But every leader who has been around for even a short while knows that criticism is part and parcel of the experience. There is simply no way of avoiding it.

Consider all of history’s greatest leaders. Regardless of their era and role, every person that we would associate with positively changing the course of history was censured during his or her lifetime, often in scathing, relentless terms. It makes no difference whether they were people of great character or not. Nor did it matter if they were on the winning side of the argument or struggle. If they stood for a cause, led a nation or advanced a noteworthy agenda, then they were at times discouraged, condemned and perhaps even physically impeded from achieving their goals and aspirations.

If fact, why would anyone want to assume a leadership position when the potential for constant critique and pushback looms large? Why would anyone want to risk affecting their relationships with friends, colleagues, co-workers and other associates in order to assume a leadership post?

The answer, of course, is that leaders want to make a difference. They recognize that change is not easy for people and that any efforts that demand of others will invariably draw criticism. But they push forward anyway as they deem appropriate, knowing that criticism is simply society’s way of saying that what you’re doing matters and deserves attention.

Of course, there are many things that leaders could and should do to gain support and buy-in, such as building equity, developing a values system, and communicating (and listening) well. Still, there is no leader worth his or her weight in salt that can expect to adequately fulfill their responsibilities without experiencing meaningful criticism and backlash at times.  Change initiatives are in many ways similar. They can be painful at present, affecting staffing levels, roles, reporting, workloads, work processes or similar things. But often these changes are necessary to ensure the long-term health of the organization.  Sure, leaders need to account for what they do, how they do it, and the impact that it may have on their constituents. But they must also possess the courage and drive to advance change that they believe is proper and necessary. The backlash that they will invariably receive is not necessarily the result of anything bad that they did. Quite the contrary — it may, in fact, be the best indicator that they are on the right path and are doing what is necessary to genuinely fulfill their leadership duties.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” ~ Winston S. Churchill

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Criticism without Solutions Simply Doesn’t Work

As leaders, we are often in a position where our opinions and criticism carry great weight and those perspectives can positively and negatively affect the lives of those around us. Unfortunately we’re not always careful with our criticism nor are we mindful of the corresponding responsibilities that go along with our words.
In an age where we can all be critics, whether it’s in blog post comments, on our own websites, on twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else we can share our ideas and opinions, the importance of understanding our responsibility as a critic is great. Yet we often ignore this responsibility and blast away at the object of our derision with little thought for the implications of our actions. Well allow me to offer a challenge for all of us to aspire to be something more than a simple critic

As a leader, it’s easy for you to rain down criticism upon the work of others. You don’t do the work – you simply set the direction for the work to be done, define the performance standards, and judge the quality of the work after it is completed. Like it or not, you’re a professional critic.
What you must understand is your criticism carries weight. It impacts the performance reviews of your people. It determines whether a supplier wins a contract or gets booted. It shapes the perspective on whether someone gets promoted or not. You get the picture – your words change lives.

I invite you to go a step beyond simple criticism. Help build something beyond your words. Instead of simply designating something as inadequate, offer constructive thoughts on how to improve it. Give people the coaching, feedback, and resources to improve their product, service, performance. Identify opportunities to connect ideas and people so they can build something greater. Be part of the solution rather than simply pointing out the problem.

Better yet, change your mindset from one of critic to one of architect. Instead of looking at your job responsibilities as only setting direction and judging the work of others, spend time with your team creating new ideas. Roll up your sleeves, make your own contributions to that idea, and be open to your work being judged by others. It’s risky. Our insecurities hold us back and relegate us to the safe world of the critic rather than allowing us to take the chance of creating “oh my! Something let’s say Average”.

If you’re not up for being an architect, at least be willing to put yourself out there to support and defend new ideas. Don’t simply follow the crowd and their opinion of something. Form your own independent thoughts and stand behind those beliefs. Don’t bow to the criticism of other critics who might criticize you (wow… stop and think that one through). It’s hard enough to create something new for those poor souls who subject themselves to the criticism of the world. I’m sure they would welcome your support, encouragement, and suggestions.   Another issue with being critical of the efforts of others without being having input on a solution is that you risk becoming irrelevant to the people you lead. It is very important to take a step back and think about what you are doing and how things might be improved before opening your mouth in judgment.

For an example, consider the following: a few years ago, an executive in a company I work for visited a customer site where things had gone very poorly during a recent project. This person scheduled an urgent conference call in which he spent 15 minutes lambasting the entire field team based on what he heard from one customer, then ended the call. No suggestions for improvement, no consideration of all of the customers who were extremely satisfied with the work – nothing about correcting the situation at all. I can certainly believe he was very upset at the time and demonstrated poor judgment in doing what he did, but there was no apology and no real change of behavior in subsequent calls.  The unintended consequence of such behavior is that many of the staff formed their own judgment – that the opinion of that person was not useful in the mission of having excellent customer relationships, so why waste time paying attention to them?

Leadership is about being out in front and taking others to new places. You can’t lead if you simply follow the conventional wisdom because it’s safe. So the next time you consider dropping a criticism bomb on the work of another, I invite you to consider the feelings of that individual, the effort they put into creating that work, the risk they’re taking in subjecting it to judgment, and the hopes and dreams they have tied up in the idea. After you’ve considered those things, then render your criticism appropriately and try to go beyond just the judgment.


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True Value in Effective Feedback

If you don’t give your employees feedback on their performance—whether on a daily basis or, at least, at performance reviews—they’ll never improve. Then why do so many entrepreneurs do such a horrible job of providing feedback?

Many of us aren’t “people persons” and it simply doesn’t occur to us to tell people how they’re doing. Often, entrepreneurs are take-charge types who, if something isn’t done the way they like it, grab the reins and do it themselves, not giving their employees a chance to improve. Finally, some of us want to give feedback, but fear coming off too harsh with negative criticism.

How can you get over these hurdles to provide feedback that will help your employees learn, grow and improve their job performance? Here are some tips all leaders can use.

  • Set a goal.      Consider what you want the feedback to achieve for your business. Don’t      criticize someone simply to vent your frustration; always have a larger      goal such as helping the person to improve, preventing customer issues, or      increasing sales. By showing the employee that you have a larger goal in      mind, feedback will seem less of a personal criticism.
  • Begin with the good stuff. Try to find something positive about the way an      employee handled a task or situation. This will put them in a receptive      frame of mind. After they have absorbed the positive praise, bring up any      negative criticism. (Keep in mind, not every instance of feedback has to      involve negativity. Rewarding employees with positive feedback for a job      done well has a strong reinforcement effect.)
  • Provide detail.      Give specifics as to what was done right or wrong and why this was helpful      or hurtful. (“You answered the phone on the first ring, which conveys a      positive impression to our customers. Great job!”) If you want the      employee to change how he or she is doing something, be specific about      what they should do and why.
  • Allow questions.      Always make sure the employee feels comfortable asking for clarification      on your feedback. You can ask them, “Does that make sense to you?” or “Do      you have any questions about that?” to confirm that they’ve understood      what you said.
  • Follow up.      If you ask an employee to do something differently, pay attention to see      whether they learn from the feedback. If so, comment positively on the      progress. If not, continue to provide feedback until they get it right.

You’ll be surprised how much feedback can improve your business when it’s used correctly.

 


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Criticism and Perception

The very first performance review I received was based on a typical 1 to 5 scale with 5 being “exceed expectations”.  I was working in a hospital and the system was pretty straight forward, you worked hard and mastered your tasks and you were almost always going to get a 4.  The general perception was if you received anything less than a 4 you probably weren’t very good.  Well, I aimed for a 5, so I learned everything there was to learn about my job, suggested some improvements and if I was on duty my department always got high marks.  So, I was not surprised that I received 4 and 5’s in each category.   It pretty much went the same way for several years.  That is until my first management role, where I reported to the CEO.  She and I got along great.  My strength was people and hers was finance and negotiations, she was former CFO.  Before my review we really never sat down to discuss expectations, I just did what I had to do to support her, the company and the other senior leaders.  During our first review she was very positive about my overall performance but when she got to the finance/accounting area she gave me a 3.  She told me I was doing great with monitoring our finances and maintaining a decent size budget, but I needed to strengthen my overall knowledge of the financial accounting side of the business.  She further explained that this would really provide me with a stronger foundation in my future career opportunities.  To me, at that time, like many employees, considered a 3 to be average (but that’s a different subject) at best and it really surprised me.  I became defensive and probably stopped listening at that point trying to figure out why she gave me a 3.    My mind quickly went to the fact that she was a financial nerd and expected perfection. 

But as I think back to that review, she really taught me a great lesson.  She cared enough to step out of the norm and tell me where I needed to improve, and I did.  Had she not been willing to tell me the truth, I would have never focused in the finance and accounting area since it is not exactly the enjoyable part of my job.  But I had to be knowledgeable in all areas of business if I was going to continue to grow and expand in my career.

Any criticism can be hard to accept. But surprise feedback — criticism that seems to come without warning is the hardest. We’re far more likely to be defensive.   About the only thing I would have suggested to her today would be to have discussed her expectations with me before that meeting and provide me with information about those weak areas so when that review time came, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The other strong lesson I learned is to prepare your employees on your methodology as it relates performance reviews.  If you don’t give high marks, unless someone walks on water, tell them ahead of time how you will be rating them.  Everyone seems to take criticism better, when it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

So as you listen to criticism and your adrenaline starts to flow, pause, take a deep breath, and:

Look beyond your feelings. Look beyond their delivery. Feedback is hard to give, and the person offering criticism may not be skilled at doing it well. Even if the feedback is delivered poorly, it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and insightful. Not everything will be communicated in “I” statements, focused on behaviors, and shared with compassion. Avoid confusing the package with the message.

Don’t agree or disagree. Just collect the data. If you let go of the need to respond, you’ll reduce your defensiveness and give yourself space to really listen. Criticism is useful information about how someone else perceives you. Make sure you fully get it.

Later, with some distance, decide what you want to do. Data rarely forces action, it merely informs it. Recognizing that the decision, and power, to change is up to you will help you stay open.