How to Protect Teams from Destructive Criticism

Handling-CriticismPositive criticism is important for quality control and feedback, but this trends toward negativity all too often, particularly when fuelled by the presumption of knowing better or of being entitled to play the role of judge. Teams can be devastated through the lack of encouragement, humility or objectivity that accompanies even the most well-intentioned criticisms. Whether this emerges from a lack of tact, a covering up of insecurities or poor role-modelling, negative criticism needs far less air time when creating healthy environments in which team members can flourish. Here’s a few tips that can help to protect teams and make them more intentionally positive.

1. Develop a shared commitment

This will identify just how it is that feedback should and should not be given and can allow teams to be held to an agreed standard which may be referred to as a ‘code of conduct’. In practice, though, the commitment might include framing comments in the form of questions, confining them to a specific area of evaluation and insisting that personal confrontations deemed necessary be addressed more privately. It might also address the need to respond appropriately to external criticisms professionally and without defensiveness. Negative criticism within teams, though, can unhelpfully mask many important positives that should be celebrated intentionally so as to aid in creating an atmosphere of appreciation. Those who violate shared agreements should ideally be held accountable by any team members and may ultimately need to be removed from their roles if threatening the agreed culture.

2. Eliminate unnecessary public conversations

There are plenty of situations in which disagreements and opinions need to be expressed, but conversations that address individuals in front of others, even peers, need care. This does not deny that people need to be emotionally healthy enough to handle critical feedback, but the spirit in which much is given too often says, “I know better,” or “I wouldn’t have done it that way,” and this can polarise or undermine groups. Where an underperformer is annoying multiple people, private discussion may not be enough, but it may need to precede and also follow a group discussion so as to minimise what is actually said by that group. Over-criticism by multiple people can otherwise make it hard for a single person to safe face and rebound well. Similarly, electronic conversations by groups should avoid casting aspersions on single team members, even though it is important to share views, and extra care is needed where existing tensions might be read into comments.

3. Identify what drives criticism

Considerable emotion accompanies many criticisms and identifying and describing feelings in any criticism that does occur can help avert the internal pressure that is felt. Knowing better than a leader, for example, may come from jealousy, but it may also be informed by the strong views of one or two other people, meaning ‘group think’ can be at work (see separate post on this insidious problem). Alternatively, criticism can ensue when some internal values that appear to be under threat. Discussing the actual feelings and owning them personally can be part of a mature discussion about why decisions or actions have been taken by others. Sometimes, leaders will be wrong but, where they have not behaved wrongly, critics are well advised to be very measured with what is said and to find out what is really going on inside themselves.

Criticism can be fuelled by gossip that seems to build its entitlement through shared perceptions. Weight of numbers should not necessarily hold sway in conflict. Sometimes a person can be right against the odds by virtue of their experience, their insight or their sheer hard work. Importantly, though, history is written from the perspective of victors, so being right is not always the end game, either. This is where healthy teams value the roles and importance of all member, lest those who are not quite so adept at out-arguing stronger personalities have their contributions minimised.


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