Too often we make the art of interpersonal communication and relationships about strategy. But strategies often miss the reality. That is not to say that strategies don’t have value, just that sometimes in learning these strategies we forget the crux of the matter.
The Medicine of Constructive Criticism
Hence they often come across as a weak attempt to make an unpleasant thing pleasant, akin to putting honey in a foul tasting medicine like Mom used to do. Let’s be honest, it still tasted really nasty. The honey strategy had very real limits. However, when we grow older and are able to connect the benefits to drinking a foul tasting medicine, we can become very motivated to drink it. Even without the honey!
Now I am not against you using strategies like the PIP (praise-improvement-praise) sandwich if that makes the unpleasant more pleasant. If strategy is all it is though, your teammate will see right through it and it will come off as dishonest.
Believing in People
The truth is, there are no shortcuts in the art of interpersonal relationships and communications. To be a great leader, you actually have to become a great leader.
To believe that growth can be achieved without pain is foolish. But to believe that most people would rather grow in spite of pain than stay stagnant is to truly believe in the people you lead. And that sets a great leader apart from the pack.
Growth will always be required. Not just for those we lead, but also for those of us who lead. And that is healthy to remember. When we leaders become the kind of people who embrace growth, that culture will rub off on those we lead.
At the Heart of Constructive Criticism
Here are seven principles of constructive criticism that can make it easier for all of us, and make growth less painful.
- Never criticize without purpose! I know we always like to think that all of our criticism serves a purpose. Does it really though? Do you stop before you criticise someone and get clear on what you plan to achieve with this criticism? The clearer you can define the desired outcome, the better you will be able to convey the required improvement to the teammate. Any criticism without a clear purpose is destructive criticism.
- Be quicker to offer constructive criticism! So often we shrug an issue off as no big deal until it becomes a big deal. Most often this is because we do things by “feel” rather than purpose. If your purpose is clear and your teammate could learn to do better, “no big deal” isn’t enough reason to put growth on pause.
- Be direct and specific! I know it is counter-intuitive, because we actually seem to believe that dancing around an issue is somehow less painful. It is not! Dancing around the issue just makes for great misunderstanding. And if you are direct and specific, you may be able to achieve a lot in one encounter. Plus, if you mix this with the previous two, you can keep things very matter-of-fact, which is helpful for keeping things on target instead of emotions.
- Get on the same page! Know the goals both of you are working towards. And connect that goal to a purpose greater than either of you. When we understand that growth is required for every team member for the desired outcome to be achieved, we take correction easily. It becomes part of the culture. If we cannot communicate that greater purpose or vision to our team, criticism becomes about them, not their potential.
- Become someone who genuinely cares! Maybe caring has a lot more to do with consistency than with feelings. I don’t care how emotional you get with the person in your chat, and how much your heart goes out to them. Grace is essential in encouraging growth. If you walk out of that session and speak ill of that person with another co-worker then you have just undermined your authority as someone invested in their growth, and you proved your lack of grace. You either actually care about their growth and it comes from the depth of your character or you don’t. And I used depth of character on purpose. Character speaks of consistency. And consistency and grace breeds trust.
- Know their strengths! They are in your sphere of influence for a reason, right? You brought them into your circle because they have something you need. Remember that, and don’t be afraid to believe in them for it and to affirm that in them. If you can no longer remember their strengths that outshine their weaknesses, you are no longer qualified to challenge them to grow. So either get better at seeing people’s strengths or remove them from your team.
- Welcome criticism for yourself! Chances are that if you cannot take constructive criticism for yourself, then you haven’t become a person that values growth. That leaves you ill-equipped to be an agent of growth in those around you. Remember, constructive criticism is about growth. When that is not the purpose behind your criticism, it devolves into simple manipulation regardless of the learned strategies.
At the end of the day, every great leader believes in his or her people. Believes that they have value. Believes that they want to grow. Great leadership is born out of the heart and built into your character. There really is no short-cut to great leadership. No perfect strategy to make you that other than to grow yourself. And then to give others the same grace that you received on the journey or would have loved to receive.
The good news is this: the more your heart and character reflects the grace and belief of a true leader, the less all the strategies matter. You will find yourself using some automatically. And you will succeed without some that others think essential.