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It’s Time to Take the Politics Out of Criticism in the Workplace

3 Aug

Business people

Today there seems to be a concerted trend toward the inception of a policy of intolerance for not just the use of but the very mention of the word “criticism” in the workplace. Exactly who it is behind this trend or why it is happening remains a mystery. While the roots of the trend might likely be found within the secret motivations of various organizations’ overly sensitive political correctness elite, the top-top management of organizations appear unaware of what’s going on.

Recent findings from a national survey conducted jointly by NMA and Bright Enterprises reported that 58% of managers have no problem with the use of the word.

While the actual word, “criticism,” may impress many as something to be avoided rather than cherished, 80% of NMA managers actually have a very positive view of the importance of using criticism in the workplace. Believe it or not, the majority of respondents overwhelmingly view criticism as a powerful motivator, performance enhancer, builder of trust and respect, and a change agent.

Nevertheless, they do appreciate that, used improperly, criticism can cause major problems in relationships. Why? Because few think about where the definitional dividing line is between the word “criticism” and other seemingly synonymic words like “insult”, “condemnation”, “disparagement”, etc .

Using replacement words like “feedback” or “caring confrontation,” while understandably softer and more “acceptable”, doesn’t carry the suggested threat of consequence that criticism does if no action is taken on the part of the receiver. In fact, besides being unclear about whether any action is necessary, very importantly, receivers may not even be aware of any non-action consequences if no action or the wrong action is taken.

Such factors alone are what distinguishes the uniqueness of the word “criticism” from substitute words or phrases designed to preserve the relationship but in the process camouflage the weight of the message’s meaning.

What is needed is for organizations to identify and reeducate those who think the use of the word” criticism” should be banished from the workplace. Why? Because there is no other word that can adequately substitute the full gravity of its effectiveness. But, maybe even more importantly, such people really do not understand what benefits accrue to the organization when criticism and its proper use are understood by all throughout the organization.

Furthermore, it is the lack of skill in this area that most likely contributes greatly to criticism’s bad reputation. Interestingly, 65% of Managers from the NMA and Bright Enterprises national survey admitted to receiving no training on how to give criticism and another 70% of women and 58% of men admitted to receiving no training on how to be a receptive receiver.  What’s more, of those who reported having received any training, 49% believe it was inadequate.

So is banishing the word really the answer? I think not.

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. She is also a best-selling author. Her newest book is entitled The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change (AMACOM Books).

“Personal Responsibleness”: The All-important Active Ingredient In Personal Responsibility

29 Feb


Part Two: Personal Responsibleness vs. Personal Responsibility

If you have been watching the news at night, as I have, you may have heard from some reporters and politicians, alike, the argument that our citizenry needs to take more responsibility and rely less on handouts from the government. Similarly, a few of my clients have complained to me about how their employees need to take more initiative. While the sources are very different, what they have to say has a lot in common. When you combine the need for initiative with that of responsibility you come up with personal responsibleness. Perhaps, personal responsibleness, which is in the dictionary, hasn’t typically been in use because it’s quite a mouthful. However, after repeating it several times, it begins to roll off your tongue.

What is personal responsibleness and how does it differ from responsibility?

Personal responsibility is something that we take, or is given to us. In contrast, personal responsibleness is a state of being. It describes a characteristic that engenders an inherent competence and trustworthiness dedicated to the maximum fulfillment of responsibilities.

Perhaps a simple example will help to illustrate the difference. A manager asks an employee to send an e-mail to notify a client of a meeting cancellation and to offer some new dates. The manager after several days hears nothing. The manager asks the employee for an update and the employee responds, “I sent them the e-mail, as you requested.” That’s an example of taking on a responsibility. Someone with Personal Responsibleness would have kept track of the e-mail request. If the client hasn’t received any word, the employee would take it upon themself to call the client to make sure the e-mail was received. Perhaps it went into the Trash folder or was blocked. After all, what’s important is not sending the e-mail but making sure the client receives the information and that a new date is established. That’s making sure the end result is achieved and a valuable difference is realized.


Through law and ritual, society can impose responsibilities on its citizens, but ultimately it’s those citizens who must discipline themselves and adopt personal responsibleness if laws are expected to be followed. Fulfilling responsibilities entails just doing specific things for others. With personal responsibleness, when individuals are given or assume a task, they look not only at how they can fulfill the responsibility but also, how they can use their energies and personal expertise to ensure the result and make a valuable difference.

Personal responibleness is a characteristic that defines one’s being. Hence, taking initiative, where one accepts the power or right to do something, falls right in line with the person who operates with personal responibleness. The reason is because the motto for those who operate with personal responsibleness is, “it’s up to me to make things happen … unless that is made impossible by circumstance beyond my control.”

If you are reading this blog while spell check is on, you may have noticed that spell check wants to delete the word “responsibleness” and regards it as non-existent. Well, as a manager or supervisor or someone with responsibilities, you must make it not only exist, you must make personal responsibleness a key part of your working vocabulary. So, in today’s times, in addition to giving people responsibilities, what’s needed if we want the best results is personal responsibleness. It’s time for this word to enter into our dialog because we want people to take initiative and we want people to look not only to themselves, but to family, community and place of work to strive to add value.

For a more in-depth look at Personal Responsibleness see Chapter Three of my book On the Edge and In Control.

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. She is also a best-selling author. Her newest book is entitled The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change (AMACOM Books).

You Don’t Have to Like Those You Manage

16 Oct

It’s yet another reorganization and, as the manager of the customer service department, you now have Marilyn reporting to you. It doesn’t take long before you secretly decide that you don’t like her. She has annoying habits that get under your skin. For instance, like most people, you hate to be interrupted and invariably, when speaking with her, she frequently, and unhesitatingly, boldly cuts you off in the middle of a sentence.. To make matters even worse, in meetings she has the habit of correcting you in front of others over the most trivial of items. She also anticipates what you are going to say before you have a chance to finish your sentence. She’ll say, “I get it,” when you believe she really doesn’t. Keeping this picture in mind, what do you need to do to motivate yourself to work with and develop this employee?

Let’s be honest, you need not think of yourself as the only manager who has had to come to terms with a situation like this. While it may take a lot of energy on your part, here are some tips to consider before you actually go into action and approach this type of employee.

Tip #1: Liking a Marilyn is not a prerequisite to dealing with a Marilyn

To begin with, even though you dislike this employee you must not be discouraged from managing her effectively. As a manager, no one ever postulated that you have to like the people who report to you. Your job and role as a leader is to work with them. If you have ever played competitive sports or acted in a play, you’ll easily recall how important it was to focus on the overall goal and to pull together, even if all the players didn’t like one another. It’s a similar situation here. Once you adopt this mental framework, you’re now ready to create an atmosphere of acceptance for criticism. That’s right! Once you realize that by using the proper application of criticism as a way of diminishing the behaviors that get in the way of the major goal of working effectively together, it is then that you are on your way to a successful working relationship. At this point, you are not pointing out Marilyn’s behaviors that annoy you. Instead you are investing time and energy to build a common understanding of how best to work together, so that future conflicts will be minimized and any criticisms delivered will be perceived as helpful.

Tip #2: Create an Atmosphere of Acceptance for Criticism.

Like most people, you might think that criticism of others is a sure way to invite conflict. But, the truth is that criticism, used properly, can be one of the best and most effective learning tools available to managers. It can actually enhance trust and respect in relationships. Most people fail at the effective use of criticism mainly because they do not first create the atmosphere in which it can thrive to everyone’s advantage. To establish an atmosphere of acceptance means taking some time to develop a clear understanding of how best to approach each other when criticism becomes necessary . What’s important to emphasize during your discussion with Marilyn is the role criticism plays at work and how it is linked to helping her to grow and develop. This is a valuable discussion to have because most employees have received little to no training on this subject. Furthermore, if your organization has painted over the word ‘criticism’ – like so many have – then like others in the workforce, Marilyn will be very confused and will need to understand this essential aspect of communication. To further encourage a two way exchange, find out if Marilyn has encountered bosses in the past who have engaged in candid conversations about her performance and what she can do better. By taking this broad approach you are positioning yourself to enter more easily into a discussion about how best to approach Marilyn with criticism. You should never have to guess about how best to approach her. During you exchange, the focus is to develop a common understanding of expectations. If you are wondering whether or not Marilyn would be able to engage in a conversation where she expresses her preferences for how best to be approached, fear not. It’s been my experience that every employee knows what turns them off and what turns them on. They just need to be asked. Millennials, in particular, are looking for feedback. What they are sensitive to is how it is delivered. It needs to be digestible.

Tip #3: Have a Marilyn’s Best Interests in Mind

It’s also essential for you to let Marilyn know you have her best interest in mind so she readily recognizes that the criticism is meant to be helpful. One way you can convey this is by making sure you always show value when delivering criticism. In order to show value, you need to link the criticism to what’s important to Marilyn or to her career goals. Let’s say in the six weeks that you’ve worked with Marilyn you’ve learned from talking to her that she places importance on being respected. Knowing that makes it possible for you to point out to Marilyn how her interruption of others sends the wrong message. More specifically, point out to Marilyn that interrupting others is not only rude but also conveys the notion that what she has to say is more important than what they have to say. It also communicates that she is not interested in listening to what the other person has to say, and that indirectly says she doesn’t respect them. Perhaps your reminded of the following expression, “I wouldn’t give you the time of day if I didn’t respect you.” So listening without interruption sends an indirect message of respect. Now, Marilyn will readily understand where you are coming from as opposed to concluding incorrectly that what you have to say to her is trivial or that you are picking on her.

By taking care to create an atmosphere for effective and acceptable criticism you are ready now to communicate with the Marilyn’s out there and turn them around from someone who is tough to work with to someone you can get along with and go forward. By putting these important tips to work you will immediately find that being open and transparent will be interpreted as helpful and that’s motivating, not only for Marilyn, but for everyone on your team who has to interact with Marilyn.

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. She is also a best-selling author. Her newest book is entitled The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change (AMACOM Books).

Whatever Happened to Executives “Following Up” with Direct Reports? (…and vice versa, for that matter)

18 Aug


Not too many years ago it seemed like most supervisors and managers, as a matter of routine, regularly followed up with their direct reports on a one-on-one or one-on-group basis. As a common practice, weekly meetings were scheduled where the boss inquired about what was going on in their direct reports’ worlds – be it generally or on a task-specific basis. But lately, I’ve been noticing that in many organizations following up with reports or “checking in” is no longer the matter of routine that it was at one time. Nor, does it seem that it is even an expectation, let alone the rule, for that matter. Now, maybe this is a result of the increasing popularity of texting, instant messaging, or e-mailing. Or, it could be the evolving unspoken manners and business rules that are changing – like a new implied trust in employees to keep their bosses abreast regarding what is going on. Well, that’s what my clients are finding – especially at senior levels.

While you still can’t beat the regularly occurring “one-on-ones”, they seem to be erratic and never long enough. So, my clients have found it valuable to communicate from afar – like e-mail. However it’s done, besides passing along top deliverables for the upcoming week, my clients and I have found that it’s extremely valuable to note key interactions they have had throughout the previous week. The reports can be brief and informal or tedious and formal. It all depends on the most acceptable style preferred by those who are involved. Typically, these reports are no more than a page. Once made aware of the obviousness of the need to keep abreast regularly, I have found that most bosses at the executive level prefer brief weekly updates, in addition to the typical monthly reports. Interestingly, executives rarely say anything. However, quit sending the weekly report and the senior manager typically gets a note from the boss asking where the weekly update is!

It just so happens that my clients are very creative. For instance, some have developed their own one-page briefing report that summarizes their past week while providing a sneak preview of top deliverables for the coming week. Some have a color coding system to note progress made on the deliverables and they use the same color coding to rate the qualities of the interactions. A few have also incorporated an “ideas” and/or “potential barriers” section.

As I tell my clients, try this approach for 60 to 90 days and then be sure to ask the boss if he/she finds the weekly update to be of help and a good use of their time. During the discussion, you will pick up very valuable insights that will help you in your efforts to stay aligned, which is of utmost importance. Guaranteed! As a final tip, you should be aware that what bosses really like about these brief updates is that it helps to make sure that they are not caught by surprise! That, by the way, is an old rule that hasn’t changed – and most likely never will.

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. She is also a best-selling author. Her newest book is entitled The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change (AMACOM Books).

Perhaps It’s Time for Meaner Bosses

1 Jul


Did you ever consider that, just maybe, the pendulum has swung too far in our efforts to create a softer and gentler work environment in an effort to show “mutual respect” between managers and their employees? Why do I ask this? A recent survey of an audience of HR professionals who are primarily based in Manhattan and neighboring states revealed that only 30% of the managers in their respective organizations hold their employees accountable for successes as well as failures on the job.

Pertinent to this disturbing new statistic, just recently, a consulting opportunity for me arose where the primary issue revolved around an increasing number of bosses in an accounting organization who weren’t staying on top of what their employees were doing or, for that matter, not doing! In other words, a lot of workers were not getting sufficiently complimented for what they did well, and many more were not being called on the carpet for failing to do what was expected of them. Quality of work seemed to be diminishing as indicated by an increasing number of client complaints. The company viewed the situation as a trend that desperately needed immediate managerial attention and one that seemed not so much a problem with the worker bees as it was with those who managed them.

It may be time to press the reset button for the boss/worker relationship and reexamine bosses’ roles within the scope of the advancing Millennial generation who are rapidly replacing the managerial hierarchy in many organizations. What’s urgently needed is to take a look at whether, and how, bosses are fulfilling their roles. For starters, are they meeting with their employees on a consistent basis and are those meetings truly productive? Next, after assigning tasks, are bosses keeping track of assignments and do they follow up with their employees to make sure that the work is being completed on time and with accuracy. Being a “good boss” isn’t just about being “nice”, although complimenting employees for a job well done is important because it shows gratitude and respect.

Bosses also need to say something when the work isn’t completed properly. That’s right – bosses need to invest time finding out what’s going on and what’s possibly interfering with the employee’s ability to get quality work done and to offer some guidance and tips along the way. Occasionally, these discussions may include criticism. To many, bosses who criticize are considered tough or even “mean” when, in reality, criticism that is given properly actually enhances the trust factor in relationships and employees come to know and respect the fact that bosses care.

How to properly give and receive criticism is something few in the new ranks of organizations have learned. But, it needs to be taught! The last I heard, the business environment is becoming more competitive – not less, as we become even more global. So, now more than ever, we need bosses to fulfill their roles and if that means that they need to be “meaner” – then, so be it!

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. She is also a best-selling author. Her newest book is entitled The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change (AMACOM Books).


Common Mistakes Made by Receivers of Criticism – Part I

4 Aug

Just as giving helpful criticism is a skill, being an effective receiver also requires skill. All of this takes patience, practice, and the ability to think practically.

Becoming a skilled receiver starts with understanding that in a criticism exchange the real control of the outcome belongs with the receiver. After all, it is the receiver who decides whether a criticism is valid or not, and whether they are going to act on the information. It’s also the receiver who decides if what’s being communicated is a criticism!

However, benefiting as the receiver of criticism goes beyond simply knowing that you are in control. It also requires knowing how to put that control to use even if you are interacting with an unskilled giver – and there are plenty of them out there.

Let’s explore where many receivers go wrong by looking at some typical receivers:

  • I’m Being Attacked Receivers: These receivers instantly become defensive, fire off questions, and challenge givers in order to protect themselves. They overlook the fact that most givers have been poorly trained in giving criticism. They also fail to realize that making givers uncomfortable is likely to bring out the worst in them. More importantly, these receivers fail to recognize that in the end, they run the risk of not obtaining what could be very valuable information.
  • Argumentative Receivers: These receivers fail to listen and view what’s being said as information. Rather, they tend to listen in an argumentative or judgmental way, which automatically creates a right/wrong, agree/disagree, or win/lose condition. Putting a lot of emphasis on weighing whether you agree or disagree with the criticism before taking the time to fully hear and consider what is being said can spark a defensive response – which is not a good way to promote a productive exchange.
  • Quick Responder Receivers: These receivers fail to stop, think, and investigate what’s being said before they react. Like Argumentative Receivers, they can listen to argue and judge and are ready with a quick response to defend themselves. As the receiver, it’s vital to use the control that is inherently yours by considering the intent behind the criticism and inspecting whether the criticism is accurate.
  • Instant FixIt Receivers: These receivers make the frequent mistake of trying to remedy the criticism right away by jumping to conclusions and doing what they believe needs to be done. They take matters into their own hands without first finding out what the desired action is – from the giver’s perspective. When these receivers are unsuccessful after making several attempts, frustration and disappointment follow, while the original issue remains unresolved.

We’ll continue to look at some common receiver mistakes in my next blog.

Common Criticism Mistakes – Part 2

30 Jul

Many people have received little or no formal training on how to offer corrective communication or criticism. If they have, the training frequently raises more questions than it answers. As a result, there are a lot of people out there who are ineffective givers of criticism. Because the mistakes are so rampant, I’ve identified and described some of the more commonly made mistakes for you to review and when possible, to avoid making.

  •  Who Cares? Givers: These givers show little concern for the receiver and often overlook the empathy factor entirely. They are either in a hurry and pressed for time or so intent on correcting the situation that they fail to recognize the receptivity and emotions that are being experienced by the receiver.
  • Where Were We? Givers: These givers tend to lose focus during a criticism exchange and are easily tripped up by receivers who are skillful at shifting the point of criticism and moving it to another topic. An employee who blurts out, “I can’t handle the way you are talking to me!” as soon as their boss begins a criticism exchange will have already moved the conversation off topic if the boss responds by saying, “What about my approach can’t you handle?”
  • Just Do It! Givers: These givers fail to point out or explain the benefit of the suggested behavior change and believe that the value is somehow implicit in the criticism. In order for criticism to be acceptable, it needs to be delivered in such a way where the receiver can readily see the value associated with making the necessary change.
  • The Sky is Falling Givers: These givers are notorious for never varying the intensity of their criticism. As such, all criticism is treated equally, regardless of the weight of importance or urgency. These givers often accompany their criticism with exaggerations and words designed to create impact. Eventually, the giver loses credibility because those on the receiving end catch on and learn to dismiss the severity of the error or criticism.
  • Procrastinating Givers: These givers delay their criticism and operate with the belief that if they wait long enough the situation will correct itself or the problem will somehow magically disappear. Because nothing’s been said, receivers are falsely led to believe that everything has been satisfactory. In addition, because these givers are reluctant to say anything, frustration and stress build up as the situation doesn’t improve until eventually these givers blow up and say things that are far more damaging than if the issues had been dealt with early on.

While we have been looking at some common mistakes that givers often make, the criticism exchange is a two-way street. Even if the giver is eloquent in their delivery, if they are interacting with a non-receptive receiver, the conversation goes nowhere and nothing productive results. It only further proves that receivers are in control of the criticism exchange – so they need to be skilled in receiving criticism or else they will fail to embrace the changes that are necessary for them to make.

Our next blog will explore some common mistakes that receivers of criticism often make.

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