I was taught to speak truth to power.
Somehow in that process I forgot that people don’t always have a strong sense of personal power, and there are times and places when this loud truth of mine is best left unsaid. Those who loved me learned to duck, and everyone else walked away.
I am an extrovert, and I learn about things through talking about things. The world of the introvert –who needs to walk away and think in private – was a closed book to me for most of my adult life. They couldn’t get a word in edgeways, while I thought if it was important they would say something, interrupt me.
I still take up a lot of the oxygen in the room, but over time some patient souls have gentled me into looking beyond my intention (always good, of course) and into the havoc I occasionally create with my unsolicited and trenchant views.
I host a forum on LinkedIn, on bullying, harassment and discrimination in the UK looking at ways to prevent it, detect it and remedy it. I have come to realise the connection between bullying and our managerial idea of performance feedback and communication.
This week I’ve been on the sidelines of several groups where conflict has broken out around public feedback and criticism. Those who were giving the feedback and criticism were all acting from a standpoint of helpfulness and a desire to improve the outcome of a process. All resulted in the criticism being received in an agitated or hostile way.
1) The intention behind the criticism does not affect whether performance itself improves as a result. I used to think if I meant well, I did well – and the other person was to blame if it all went wrong (they had too much ego, couldn’t handle it, etc.). It just doesn’t work.
2) Unsolicited criticism rarely results in any change in performance – the most likely outcome is an argument or hurt feelings (amygdala hijack). This method may stop someone doing something but is not likely to improve how they do it. Walk up to the next ten people you meet and tell them how they could look better, eat better, earn more money, and see how many answers you get that don’t include “…..off”!
3) Public criticism is usually viewed by people who receive it as abusive and counter productive. The public naming and shaming of people is normally regarded as a punishment and not a motivational or feedback tool.
When a group comes together for a common purpose, it is easy to assume that the same purpose is shared . . . and that our own method of achieving that purpose is naturally the right one. That is rarely the case.
Inside an organisation, public criticism of an individual’s work can amount to bullying – with all the emotional and legal complications arising from that. Work on the principle of public praise, private criticism (and you will have more colleagues who like you too).
When we go online, we are in public. The fact you can post to forums sitting on your sofa in your pyjamas can give a false sense of intimacy and privacy. Try doing your social media more formally dressed to see if it changes your tone.
Criticism of all kinds abound on the online and offline world:
1) Tactful – I wonder if you are trying to achieve….is that working?
2) Direct – That needs improving
3) Abrasive – That was a load of rubbish
4) Abusive – You are an incompetent person
5) Criminal – amounting to harassment and abuse that needs reporting
It is extremely rare anyone asks the question – What was the purpose of your action? What was the thinking behind it? I wouldn’t walk up to you at a party and tell you I hated your outfit – not if I wanted you to talk to me.
You remember that guy at the party/networking event/meeting you hated – the one who walked across the room and without even being asked told you what was wrong with the country today? (then kept at it for hours). Remember how he changed your political views? Your career choice? The only thing he changed was your mood!
Online presence is not an invitation to be insulted – any more than going to a party is! The wisdom of crowds does not come from shouting so loudly no one can think, but in sampling opinions and asking questions. Reserve to yourself by all means the ‘right’ to be critical online but if want the person to change how they are doing things – you should know – it is not likely to work.
We all need to raise the bar when it comes to our performance as bosses, managers, colleagues, friends, members of communities. We can’t complain our way to paradise or criticise our way to success.
Our KoffeeKlatch intervention service around performance management is designed to get you moving, and to sort out where your business or your people are getting stuck.
Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
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