Creating an Atmosphere for Positive Criticism

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

“I am the first to admit when I’m wrong,” a company owner boldly and proudly exclaimed,  “I am even eager to admit when I am wrong.” 

I laughed spontaneously, before I had a chance to control it, and then quickly apologized. “Yeah, but, come on,” I said, “you stack the deck to never lose or be wrong.”  At first he laughed with me, then it hit him. You could see his mind rolling through interactions with his team.

“I really do, don’t I?”

A lot of leaders do this with no malice or negative intent. They just set the rules, or ask the questions in such a way that technically they aren’t “wrong.” Of course, efficiency tools are a good thing — duh. And the one they’ve chosen is the “best” for the problem it solves, but when they take off the table the discussion of whether or not that particular problem is worth solving, then how do people respond? The decision is made. And team members get the message loud and clear: Don’t question, don’t disagree. The fact that this makes other, more important aspects of their job harder and doesn’t solve the most pressing issue facing the team becomes irrelevant, but hey, by the letter of the question, the boss isn’t wrong and doesn’t have to admit anything.

If you are going to set the rules and foundation and then stand as judge and jury afterward, you will always be right! 

Here’s the serious and very real question: Does the rest of your team have permission to say no or disagree? If your decision, while technically “right,” causes more problems than you can see, can your team tell you?

I bet I know what most of you are thinking: “Of course they can; we have a culture of frank honesty and open communication.” 🤣 Sorry, there’s that spontaneous laughter again. The problem is some of you would be lying, and many others are just benevolently blind.

We all want to see ourselves as the open-minded, benevolent leader. But life moves pretty fast (just ask Ferris) and many simply don’t make the time for the debate when they “know they are right.” As a result, they walk the fence and tell in the form of a question. Technically, yes, they are asking their team for input, but what they’re really doing is directing a task. It’s giving your employee the “opportunity to do the right thing” — this, we think, makes it sound like they have input, without you having to give them an order or sound like a dictator. You are manipulating them without interest in their actual thoughts. If you aren’t looking for an honest answer, the question is actually manipulation — and probably not what you’re looking for to nurture a positive relationship with your team.

See, the problem is, your team isn’t fooled. They know you aren’t really asking but don’t have the courage to tell. They know you won’t actually listen to their input or their expertise, so after a few times they begin to shut down and simply agree out of the gate. Why argue? It’s great for the boss, it reinforces their rightness and gives the illusion that you have complete buy-in. But in truth, no matter how much they may love you and your humanity, the talk around the water cooler is one of frustration and judgment because you never listen to the people you have hired to actually know stuff.

What people really want is truth and accuracy, even if they don’t like it. If you’ve made up your mind, tell them. “Hey team, I’ve decided this is what we are going to do and I realize some of you will not agree with it. We spent months analyzing the circumstances, but hold open the possibility we missed something. If you think there might be something we don’t know, please share so we can weigh it against our data.”  At least that way you aren’t pretending you care what they think — or worse, pretending they actually have influence that they don’t have.

If, like the owner mentioned at the beginning, you realize you do this, then recognize there has been damage done to the relationship — no matter how unintentional. Acknowledge that, and be more clear. Notice if you regularly make decisions without input, then spring the idea on your team expecting them to have wisdom in the moment about a topic you’ve been studying and analyzing for weeks or more. If so, in the immortal words of Bob Newhart, stop it! Ask for input from the start and be clear. You’re learning and gathering information. And if you are truly open to disagreement, tell them so. “Hey folks, ‘No’ is a perfectly viable response here. If we are barking up the wrong tree, solving the wrong problem, or exacerbating another, let me know.” If you are willing to do that over and over again, you will build trust, create a culture of vulnerable, honest communication and make better decisions while increasing loyalty and engagement.  After all, what do people really want in their careers? To be valued and contribute meaningfully to the outcome.

So ask yourself: can you really be wrong? It takes a strong leader to admit it, and it takes a wise leader to make sure his team is open and honest enough to feel comfortable confronting him in the first place.