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Creating Successful Leaders

Here in Minnesota especially, we go out of our way to avoid unpleasant confrontation. In fact, many Minnesotans go to extravagant, almost comical lengths to avoid having to engage another person when doing so might bring out anger, hurt feelings or raised voices.

In many ways, this tendency isn’t bad. Minnesotans are very in tune with other people’s feelings, and are thus extremely empathetic and understanding. They want to keep everyone’s self-esteem in tact, and would much prefer to build people up than knock them down.

This behavior gets to be a problem, however, when giving criticism is necessary. Simply put, we all mess up, and we all need to be confronted at times when our faults get in the way of other people’s ability to lead successful lives.

Of course, I’m speaking in pretty general terms. Not all Minnesotans are non-confrontational or passive aggressive. But it is a stereotype that contains some truth, which is why I’d like to talk about it today.

An article in The Harvard Business Review points to the consequences of being overly casual in criticism: “A too-polite veneer often signals an overly politicized workplace: Colleagues who are afraid to speak honestly to people’s faces do it behind their backs. This behavior exacts a price.”

In other words, criticism will find its way into the workplace somehow. It is better to deal with it openly and honestly than to allow it to fester in the form of gossip and passive-aggression.

The biggest problem I see with people both giving and receiving criticism is their failure to separate their performance with their whole being. A comforting fact to remember is that when you must criticize (and to be a good leader, you must) you are never tearing down a person’s inner self. On the contrary, good criticism is meant as a way to strengthen the individual.

The best criticism is direct. It is not sandwiched between compliments. It does not rely upon outside explanation. It never comes from an emotional area; it is fact-based.

We all have trouble doing this well. To work on your direct criticism skills, consider the following tips.

1. Use Active Sentences. “You need to work on meeting your deadlines.” “I am counting on you to improve your attitude in regards to dealing with our customers.”

Not “If the invoices could be completed a bit sooner, that would be great.” This criticism is shrouded in vagueness regarding who should complete the invoices, how much sooner, and why this is necessary.

2. Be Specific. Provide facts and reasons for your criticism. Connect the specific areas that you feel need improvement with the bigger picture.

3. Don’t feel the need to feel bad or apologize. Giving criticism calmly and confidently shows the individual that for one thing, it is not a personal attack, and for another, that you are assured in the necessity of providing this criticism. You are doing this because you want the person to succeed.

Making this a habit opens the door to real, honest communication between members of an organization. This in turn makes the environment better-suited for productivity, clarity and trust.

Ferrazzi, Keith. “Candor, Criticism, Teamwork.” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012. Accessed March 23, 2013.


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