Bringing Effective Challenge to the People You Lead

I’m a word person, through and through. I especially love puns and clever plays on words. Years ago, I discovered The Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational Word Contest, where people subtracted or added one letter to an existing word and invented a new definition, all for comedic effect. For example, intaxication: euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with. Or, beelzebug: Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out. (I laugh out loud every time I read that.) My favorite, though is sarchasm: the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

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Funny, yes, but there’s an element of truth embedded in the humor of this made-up word that paints an excellent picture of the effect of negative criticism on relationships. Sarcasm is a relationship killer. Whether it’s at work, at home, or in the community, this biting form of humor creates the antithesis of what people need to be effective and feel valued. Rather than creating a culture that is for people, sarcasm and negative criticism create dissension, separation, rifts and division.

Now, I’m not suggesting we need to adopt a Pollyanna, overly-optimistic approach to managing our relationships — we can’t grow without appropriate challenge if all we ever hear is how great we are. But, there’s a distinct difference in bringing challenge to someone that is life-giving versus criticism that tears a person down. Sarcasm is the worst of this kind of negative talk, but unnecessarily negative criticism is equally damaging.

At GiANT, we talk to pioneering leaders, who usually prefer to focus on the future, about building bridges for their teams. Those carrying out the daily details of the current plan in organizations are most often present-oriented and need lots of information to understand the what and why behind a strategic change. Wise leaders take time to intentionally connect teams members to their vision by asking what details and data their staff need to feel safe moving forward with a new plan. We call this building a bridge.

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You can extend the metaphor to the concept of sarcasm and negative criticism, as well. If a cohesive team is the goal, any bridges that have been built will be rendered useless or torn away completely when mocking digs in meetings or harsh criticisms of performance are the norm. People certainly won’t feel safe in these scenarios, and if they follow you, it will only be because they have to. Yes, we have to critique and analyze to be able to make changes for the better, but those necessary critiques have far better results in the long term if they are offered as challenges that validate the people on the other side of the table.

Bad: “That was as poor an excuse for a marketing report as I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe how unprepared you were in our client meeting today. It wouldn’t surprise me if they quit us today after that performance.”

Better: “That was not a productive meeting. What did you think about how it went? [Pause to listen to the team member.] You know, I’ve seen your excellent work before and I have some suggestions to make it better next time. Let’s talk.”

As you can see in the above examples, pushing a negative criticism on the other person can create defensiveness, whereas challenge, calibrated with the right amount of support, opens the door for improvement. (If you can’t see that, we really need to talk, and fast!)

My challenge for you is this: Ask yourself if you default to sarcasm and negative criticism under stress. If you do, consider why it is you do that. And next time, instead of defaulting to behavior that will surely have a negative outcome, do what Diane Sawyer suggests, “I learned something great on one of the stories I did,” she says. “Someone said to me… ‘A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request. So why don’t you just make the request? Why don’t you just say, Could we work out this thing that makes me feel this way?'” (Huffington Post)

Bring effective challenge, skip the sarcasm, and make the request. You’ll be glad you did.