Stop 'Shirking' When You Give Constructive Criticism
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
To be a great leader, you can’t fear being seen as the bad guy/gal. And I’m not just talking about obvious ‘bad guy/gal’ situations like telling someone “you’re fired” or “you’re not getting a raise this year and here’s why.” I’m also talking about simple situations like telling someone “I need you to change the way you submit that form.”
To be a great leader, you’ve got to occasionally give constructive criticism, or other tough feedback. And when you do, you’ve got to own it, even if that means being seen as the bad guy/gal.
Shirking is the opposite of owning your feedback. It’s basically saying to an employee “Listen, I think you’re doing a great job. But Bob, the new VP, he’s not so happy with some of your work and we’re going to have to talk about that.” Shirking is giving tough feedback but ascribing it to someone else, so you don’t have to feel like the bad guy. And, not surprisingly, shirking usually backfires.
Shirking shows up all over the place. You hear it in situations like these:
- “You know I’d give you an 8% raise if I could, but the new VP is staying firm on 2%.”
- “You know I don’t have a problem keeping you on the account, but the CEO must have overheard something you said to the client. The CEO made the call on this one. I don’t really have any control.”
- “We’re pulling back on remote work hours. I think it’s been working out fine, but the HR team wants folks back in the office.”
Ascribing our feedback to someone else is an abdication of our responsibility as leaders. And shirking a) ruins employee relationship building, b) destroys leadership camaraderie and c) encourages a culture of blame in the organization.
Having the guts to give your folks tough news doesn’t make you the enemy. It makes you a leader who helps your people to grow and to develop and to achieve great things. When you toss responsibility for that news to some other leader, the lesson gets lost. The only thing the employee learns is, “Wow, that new VP is a real jerk.” And that can unleash a whole new set of behavioral problems as the employee now sees the new VP as the enemy instead of the exciting new leader who is going to turn the company around.
Leave the new VP (or CEO or HR team) out of it and approach the feedback with fact-based communication that tells your people “awesome performance looks like this, and your performance doesn’t look like this, so let’s talk about how to get you to awesome.” Owning feedback in this way, instead of blaming someone else, carries weight. It lets your people know you’re serious, it engenders respect, and it makes them accountable to making the desired behavioral changes. It’s the foundation on which employee/manager relationships are built. Shirking just makes employees feel defensive and mad at the new VP.
Shirking can also make your fellow leaders mad at you. The peers and bosses you throw under the bus might not enjoy playing your scapegoat, even if the tough feedback did originate with someone else. Let’s say Pat, that darn new VP, really did walk into your office. And Pat really did say “Your guy is screwing up communication with the client and I want him off the project.” Throwing Pat under the bus isn’t going to win any points with Pat. The odds are pretty good that Pat went to you instead of directly to the employee for a reason: an invitation to do your job. Shirking positions you as someone who can’t do the job, who blames, or even worse, who stirs up organizational drama. Your peers and bosses will lose trust in you and stop sharing the valuable critical feedback that you need to do your job well. Shirking destroys leadership camaraderie.
Finally, if we throw Pat under the bus, or the new CEO, or whomever, we have basically said to our employees “It’s OK in this organization to throw people under the bus. Look at how I just did it! So go ahead and blame. Forget all that stuff we’ve been spoon-feeding you about being accountable. In this workplace, blame is the game!” And the research on this is clear: blame is contagious. The more we blame others the more the people around us are going to feel its OK for them to blame others as well.
Bottom line, if you have critical feedback to give, you’ve got to own that feedback.
Don’t throw your colleagues or bosses under the bus by shirking. Stick to fact-based conversations. It will bolster your bravery by allowing you to speak candidly without making people angry so you can turn tough conversations into coaching conversations that result in positive behavioral change.