Consider this: Your boss’s face draws a blank,
color rises to the cheeks and hardens into a firm look. If such
expressions could harm, you’d be in the ER. But you would have plenty
of company because you are one of the many thousands of brave souls who
have given, or attempted to give, their boss a critique. It could have
been about his way of addressing the team, or it may have been about
her way of managing a project without input. Regardless the criticism
was not taken well. And so there you are left in the glare of the
moment wondering if you will still have a job come next morning.
Accepting criticism is an essential leadership trait yet too many of
our leaders in high places, be it team leader, head coach or CEO, do
not seem to take it well. Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina,
is a case in point. Had she been willing to listen to her team instead
of firing them, she might have cultivated the support she needed to
lead the company. But when HP’s business took a turn for the worse,
Fiorina found that there was no one following her.
While many in senior leadership positions do acknowledge the virtue of
honest criticism, they bristle when that critique comes from those
subordinate in rank. The boss’s attitude is “how dare she speak to me
like that?” Well, truth be told, the question should be, “how dare she not speak that way?” Criticism rooted in fact about the business or about the management of that business is appropriate.
Since honest feedback is essential to running any organization. It
should be cultivated so that employees feel free to critique their
higher ups. And in turn, those higher ups should feel comfortable
accepting such criticism. Giving criticism to a boss requires the
velvet glove treatment.
Here are some suggestions for giving and receiving criticism.
Know your facts. If you are going to criticize your boss, you’d
better be right. John Boyd, the legendary fighter-pilot instructor who
not only taught new ways to fight but also contributed to the
development of new generations of aircraft, was a relentless critic. It
cost him his career but he made his points because his facts were
straight. This approach also applies to coaching advice. For example,
if you have a boss who’s heavy handed with subordinates in meetings,
cutting them off before they can make their points, it is acceptable to
criticize. Do not say “you’re being mean.” Focus instead on what the
boss is doing wrong and how it is affecting the performance of others.
You may need to cite specific incidents, e.g., a staff meeting or a
project review. Results are what count and coaching should be developed
to bring about better results.
Take it in stride. Rolling with the punches is not an admission
that your critics are right; it is statement that you understand that
people will disagree with you. Those in leadership need to listen to
their critics, but be strong enough not to retaliate in kind. Leaders
have the right, even the duty, to defend themselves, but not to the
extent that they discredit their opponents.
Edward R. Murrow’s investigation of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pursuit
of communists in government is one such case study. Murrow, a legendary
journalist for CBS News, made the case that McCarthy regularly and
ruthlessly made scurrilous accusations against anyone he deemed might
be pro communist. McCarthy’s red baiting investigations ruined many
lives needlessly. This story is told with verve and passion in the new
film written and directed by George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck.
In responding to Murrow’s charges, McCarthy did not argue the merits of
Murrow’s investigation. Rather McCarthy accused Murrow himself of being
a communist. Murrow stood by his story and deflected all personal
attacks with facts not vitriol. Murrow did not crawl into the gutter
with McCarthy; he stayed on the high side of the road. Months later,
McCarthy self destructed on national television during the Senate’s own
hearings into McCarthy’s accusations of communist influence in the U.S.
Chill then act. When you receive criticism, take a deep breath
and thank the person who gave it. Yes, thank him. You may not agree, or
you may need to think about it, but you should commend the individual
for standing up and speaking his mind. Your reaction will set the tone
for what happens next. If you lash out, that will be the last criticism
you ever hear. That might assuage your ego, but you may risk running
your department or your organization into the ground because you won’t
have all the facts. If you reflect and then act you will demonstrate a
degree of leadership that engenders respect.
Learning From It
As important as criticism is, there are moments when an employee should
hold fire. For example, during times of crisis, such as a failed
product launch or the sudden departure of a key executive, it is not
advisable to lay on the critiques. Wait for an opportune moment and
then deliver. That said, tough times call for tough actions and leaders
need to receive straight talk from their people, even when that talk
verves into their own shortcomings.
Bravery is required to stand and deliver
something other than flattery to the boss. It is a myth to think that
responsibility lies solely with the person at the top. While the
passage of Sarbannes Oxley reform act makes those at the top criminally
liable for corporate misdeeds, it is up to everyone in the organization
to share in that role. Such responsibility is not reserved only for
avoiding wrongdoing. More often it is about “right-doing,” that is,
giving your boss the straight story on why a project failed or what can
be done to improve a process or even how to improve team and individual
Leaders need input from everyone on the team. Those who accept
criticism are those leaders who not only achieve results they want;
they also improve their own prospects for advancement. They position
themselves as people who can learn from mistakes and take action.
What’s more, their behavior over time creates a culture where others up
and down the organization feel empowered to offer criticism that is
based in fact and intended for improvement rather than denigration.