Replace Critique with This… A New Tool for Your Leadership Toolbox

I’ve found that the majority of the time I have a concern with a person’s behavior or performance, they already know there is an issue. So I have learned that rather than critique a person’s performance, I can approach them gently with the question, “How is going…” For example, if John is not meeting a deadline with project X, I simply ask, “John, how is going with project X?”

Allow me to give you a few tips on how to add this question to your leadership toolbox.

A few months ago, a leader I work with was having issues with person A on the team not being nice to person B when they met in person—at least that’s what was reported. I asked how they were planning to address this. The answer was, “A, I am a little concerned about what I am hearing about the meeting with person B.”  That’s not bad a approach, but there is a better way.

I suggested that before using the “concern” question, simply ask, “A, how are the meetings going with person B?” Following this suggestion, the conversation went very smoothly, with A immediately coming out and relaying all of their concerns. It made a smooth entry for the leader to then discuss the issues in a non-critical way, and subsequently address the shared concerns.

Critiquing others is usually awkward.

No leader likes to be a nag. I understand that we have to hold others accountable, but I have found that when we lead people in a positive way, we all get more done. So, anytime I can use a tool to communicate with people in a positive way, I try to reach for these techniques.

Some may say, “You should just say what you need to say. Don’t worry about how it comes out.” I don’t believe this is wise advice. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Do you like your boss to keep nagging at you, “Why is this not done?” “Why did you do it this way?” “Why didn’t you meet my expectations?” You may even respond, “If I am not doing what I am asked to do, then I am okay with being called out.”

While it is permissible, and even our right to say these things, it is not the most effective way to lead people.

There is always a story…

A non-confrontational question like, “How is it going with project X?” invites a person to tell us their story. And there is always a story. The additional insight I receive when I ask this question always adds another perspective to what I presently see. Learning their story does not imply we intend to dismiss poor behavior. It is only a tool for us, as leaders, to use in order to understand what is going on, so we then know how to best address it.

Person A may have a problem with the nature of the task, in the expectations that have been set, or with others responding or reporting to them. A person may be in above their head. I may have assigned a task to a person whose professional maturity, skill, or emotional fortitude is not at the capacity necessary for them to manage it. My first job as a leader, when something is not well, is to find out what is going on. Find out their story.

People know when they are failing.

When a person on my team does not do what they are supposed to do, I know I have failed. A lot of times, we think we need to inform people they have let us down. We presume if we aren’t talking to them about it, then they are probably clueless that there is even a problem. People may look like they don’t know, but I have found that, almost always, they do.

Don’t pretend you don’t know.

When I ask a team member, “How are you doing with this project?” and they respond, “Wes, I am so sorry, I know I have not done it because of these reasons: x, y, and z. I know this must be bad for the overall result,” don’t say, “Oh no, don’t worry about it. Just do your best,” when inside you are burning up about it.

I recommend communicating your concern, “John, thank you for being aware of the deadline. Being late is negatively affecting the team. Thank you for giving it your best attention for the next few days.” If you notice, you are still communicating concern, but you do it after you find out whether they see the problem and acknowledge it on their own. The same is true of annual self-evaluations versus evaluations from the boss only. Both evaluations usually lead to the same enlightenments. But when a person is called upon to examine themselves, they will often dig deep, acknowledge, and self-correct.

Asking for a report is sufficient.

If the expectations were clear from the beginning, simply asking for a report, should quickly reveal the gap. If a person does not notice the issues, or does not say anything about them, then you may have the wrong person in place.

Don’t get upset. Simply adjust expectations.

The statement above released me from so much heartache as a leader. When I first began leading, I thought when people didn’t do what I needed them to do, or be who I needed them to be, I should “make them” one way or another. I sought to get the results I wanted in a nice way, by motivating them, not by doing some kind of trick or maneuver. When I abandoned this approach to my leadership and began adjusting my expectations instead, I found much freedom and effectiveness.

I am responsible for creating and defending a healthy culture, facilitating direction, setting a vision and implementing goal setting. And I want to be ready to serve everyone who needs me. I am also responsible to encourage, and maybe even urge, people to grow. Beyond that, if a person does not operate within the expectations, I do not stress out, lose sleep, or throw a tamper tantrum. I simply adjust my expectations of them, meaning I move them to another position they can handle within the bounds of their professional maturity. If such a position is not available, I facilitate their exit. This should be rare if we did our due diligence with hiring the right person for our team.

I hope you can add this simple tool to your leadership toolbox. Before you tell people where they are failing, simply ask, “How is it going…?”

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

For Further Reading:

How to Predict People’s Behavior
Boundaries, Not Barriers

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