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Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Leadership

Why every manager needs to hear criticism and bad news

Is there someone on your team who finds fault with everything?

“I really don’t like the new process you shared with us last week. And I think our meetings have been a waste of time. If you’d give me more space, I’d get way more done.”

This Complainer makes teammates who nod a lot, fly in formation — and who don’t have a bad word to say about anything or anyone (especially you!) — look pretty good in comparison.

But employees who never or rarely take issue with you, the team, or the work also come with a big downside. They may sound dreamy, but they make it far easier for you to slip out of touch with crucial information. Information that could improve processes, teamwork, results, your leadership approach, and frankly, YOU.

Non-Complainers pose a special risk if you’re the kind of leader who swerves to avoid hitting undue disagreement, ruffled feathers, and criticism. If you don’t like to bring up tough subjects, and they don’t like to bring up tough subjects, who will?

When a leader fails, it is often said — by way of explanation — that he or she “had fallen out of touch.” But not out of touch with the good news. Out of touch with the bad news, which is far harder for employees to share. Employees fear upsetting the boss. They feel “complaining” will be career-limiting. Or just expect that sharing alternative viewpoints will be a grand waste of time and breath.

To maximize leadership success you MUST know not just the good – but also the bad and the ugly. If you don’t cultivate the art of collecting sentiments that can be hard to hear, you’ll pay a price. You’ll miss out on good ideas, you’ll slow your pace of leadership skill development, and good employees may leave.

So how do you get people to open up and share their frustrations or criticisms? A few pointers:

  1. Ask: As Woody Allen once said, “Half of success is just showing up.” You may have to ask for people to share their frustrations or alternative ideas a few times and in a few different ways until you hit the jackpot. It’s scary to share critiques or negative sentiments you suspect the boss may not want to hear. Once someone starts to share, be sure to listen intently. Playback what they said in your own words to check for understanding. Take notes. Ask follow up questions. Stay calm, reflective, and thoughtful. (All this buys you time to think as well as to get the “fuller story.”)
  2. Thank: If you feel someone has struggled to share a critical insight, or if a team member offers up something that gives you an emotional jolt, it is the PERFECT moment to share your appreciation for that person’s honesty. Even if every cell in your body is feeling the opposite of appreciation. Take a deep breath while mustering as much genuine positive sentiment as you can.
  3. Be fallible: Point out to the team when you’re wrong. Don’t be perfect. Make it clear you rely on others as much as yourself for insight. If a leader cultivates a veneer of near perfection or always-being-right, people are likelier to stop telling them the truth about what’s (really) happening. No one wants to rain on that leader’s parade by pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Which strengthen’s the out-of-touch leader’s sense of being infallible – and the doom loop continues.

I regularly walk leaders through 360 feedback, a powerful process for confidentially surveying team members to learn what is working/not working about a specific leader’s approach. 360 reports often contain wonderful validation for what a leader is doing right – but may also include news that is hard to hear. News that stings, in the short run.

But even in the toughest of cases, I’ve never had a manager who didn’t confess a few months later that they were glad to have gotten that difficult feedback. Because it enabled them to start to fix things.

As they say, “Better the devil you know, then the devil you don’t.” Cultivate your ability to gracefully solicit and accept criticism, bad news, and alternative points of view. Cultivate at least a little bit of the “Complainer” in every single team member. And try not to take things personally. It’s all about the business, finding ways to work more effectively with each other, and collectively working our way to the best answers.

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Kirstin Lynde is the founder and principal at Catalyze Associates, a firm dedicated to intensive, immersive, and metrics-based leadership development and coaching programs. She has led leadership programs as an executive at Randstad USA, Forrester Research, Digitas, and Ropes and Gray.