Does Criticism Make You Cranky?

How did you feel the last time you received feedback? Did you feel energized or cranky? The effect of the message most likely was influenced by how the sender framed the communication.

Coaching is an important component of transformational leadership. Most management curricula train students how to give effective feedback. Many websites provide tips also (see the 20 quoted below). Feedback drives improvement in most all aspects of employee and organizational performance and development. Regardless of forum (360 performance review or feedback on a specific task or project, for example), the communication exchange helps align leader and employee expectations and shapes common goals and visions.

Conceptually, coaching differs from criticism because coaching focuses on behavior whereas criticism centers on the person. More often than not, criticism serves the sender of the message more than it helps the receiver. The following principles fit into the “coaching” category.

  1. Give feedback only when asked to do so or when your offer is accepted.
  2. Give feedback as soon after the event as possible.
  3. Focus on the positive.
  4. Feedback needs to be given privately wherever possible, especially more negative feedback.
  5. Feedback needs to be part of the overall communication process and ‘developmental dialogue’. Use skills such as rapport or mirroring, developing respect and trust with the [receiver].
  6. Stay in the ‘here and now’, don’t bring up old concerns or previous mistakes, unless this is to highlight a pattern of [behaviors].
  7. Focus on [behaviors] that can be changed, not personality traits.
  8. Talk about and describe specific [behaviors], giving examples where possible and do not evaluate or assume motives.
  9. Use ‘I’ and give your experience of the [behaviors] (‘When you said…, I thought that you were…’).
  10. When giving negative feedback, suggest alternative [behaviors].
  11. Feedback is for the recipient, not the giver – be sensitive to the impact of your message.
  12. Consider the content of the message, the process of giving feedback and the congruence between your verbal and non-verbal messages.
  13. Encourage reflection. This will involve  posing open questions such as:
  14. Did it go as planned? If not why not?
  15. If you were doing it again what would you do the same next time and what would you do differently? Why?
  16. How did you feel during the session? How would you feel about doing it again?
  17. How do you think the [receiver] felt? What makes you think that?
  18. What did you learn from this session?
  19. Be clear about what you are giving feedback on and link this to the learner’s overall professional development and/or intended [program] outcomes.
  20. Do not overload – identify two or three key messages that you [summarize] at the end. (http://www.faculty.londondeanery.ac.uk/e-learning/feedback/giving-feedback)

In a vibrant organizational culture, most employees desire on-going growth and development. Part of that is facilitated by the leader’s coaching, encouragement, and support. Transformational leaders are role models also. Therefore, they need to model how to receive feedback, and should be held to an even higher standard than their teammates. This higher standard includes viewing criticism as an opportunity, not as a personal affront.

Shelia Heen and Douglas Stone (2014) help navigate the “how to” challenge in their article, “Find the Coaching in Criticism,” published in the Harvard Business Review. They identify three barriers, which interfere with the recipient understanding the message:

Truth triggers are set off by the content of the feedback. When assessments or advice seem off base, unhelpful, or simply untrue, you feel indignant, wronged, and exasperated.

Relationship triggers are tripped by the person providing the feedback. Exchanges are often colored by what you believe about the giver (Heʼs got no credibility on this topic!) and how you feel about your previous interactions (After all Iʼve done for you, I get this petty criticism?). So you might reject coaching that you would accept on its merits if it came from someone else.

Identity triggers are all about your relationship with yourself. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, it can be devastating if it causes your sense of who you are to come undone. In such moments youʼll struggle with feeling overwhelmed, defensive, or off balance (Heen & Stone, 2014, para 9-11).

Heen and Stone (2014) also provide tips for preventing the detraction brought about by the above triggers. First is recognizing our own reaction patterns and how we get defensive. Second is separating the message from the sender because regardless of the source, the message may have value. Third is to put a positive construction on the message; if the message sounds judgmental, work to see it as helpful advice that offers a new perspective. Forth is to “unpack” the feedback to better understand it and to determine what parts may be useful.

They provide a great example. Consider receiving the comment that “you need to be more assertive.” That comment violates the principles of constructive feedback delivery. However, on the receiving end, one can turn the situation around by asking or at least identifying specific behaviors that may have led to the sender’s judgment. Heen and Stone (2014) add also that it is important to understand precisely what the desired behavior is. What the sender judges “good” may not align with the receiver’s definition.

Fifth, they recommend asking for feedback during informal times and intervals. Waiting for a performance review is reactive. A proactive approach is inviting “bite-sized” feedback regularly. This is not fishing for compliments. Rather, asking good questions is key. For example, “how did I do” is vague. Asking for one specific observation concerning good or weak performance on a specific task will likely yield a more useful response. Finally, Heen and Stone (2014) recommend conducting small experiments to determine which elements in feedback received are helpful or not.

My book, Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training, presents my research on connections between avid athletes who are successful leaders in their organizations. How they coach and provide feedback to their employees was addressed, and their behaviors align well with the principles of providing constructive feedback. Transformational leaders are apt to deliver receiver-centered feedback.

Leaders control how feedback is given. Everyone can control how he or she receives feedback. Despite the motives or skills of the sender, we have the choice to find opportunity in the message.

Reference

Heen, S., & Stone, D. (2014). Find the Coaching in Criticism. HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, 92(1-2), 108-+.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

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Is Self-Discipline a Muscle?

Inspirational leadership quotes abound. I appreciate one in particular, which concerns self-discipline as a form of conduct from which leaders may benefit:

Self-discipline is like a muscle; the more you exercise it the stronger it gets(TED Talks).

Related to self-discipline are the abilities to delay gratification and exert self-control, particularly when tempted to tack an easier course. A study in The Leadership Quarterly identified 88 behaviors central to leadership, which were derived from interviews of 44 senior-level managers and a review of the relevant literature. The table below summarizes these attributes, which include leader-, management-, problem-solving and communication-related leader characteristics as well as general behaviors that support effective leadership (Anderson, Krajewski, Goffin, & Jackson, 2008, p. 608). Self-discipline is listed in the “General work attributes” column. Click here to see the list of attributes.

Developing self-control early in life provides clear advantages. In the late 1960s, an influential experiment called The Marshmallow Challenge was performed on kindergarteners to test their willpower. They were given a choice to eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and receive two. Although most said they would wait, when left alone in a room with one marshmallow in hand, most succumbed to the temptation to eat it in less than one minute. Those with the self-discipline to wait the 15 minutes for two treats scored higher on SAT exams, and had fewer problems with drug addiction and obesity when they entered high school.

Although the Marshmallow Challenge suggests advantages associated with self-discipline in childhood, I wish to play further with the muscle metaphor in the quote above. I argue it is never too late to develop one’s self-discipline muscle. Research suggests that muscular strength can be enhanced at any point. LaStayo, Ewy, Pierotti, Johns, and Lindstet (2003) subjected 21 frail elderly participants to lower-extremity resistance training. Their strength improved by 60%, their balance by 7%, and their ability to descend stairs by 21%. A meta-analysis 2,020 subjects who participated in studies conducted between 1970 and 2003 found exercise improved subjects’ physical and cognitive functioning, including improvements to those suffering from dementia and other cognitive impairments (Heyn, Abreu, and Ottenbacher, 2004).

I admire those who start a life-changing program later in life. I learned to love exercise when I was young, at a time when running and swimming a mile daily were considered unusual at best and perhaps a little nuts. Some of my friends, on the other hand, started exercise regimens in their 50s and 60s. Many who stay with their routines begin to enjoy working out over time. Others give up. I particularly admire those who dislike exercise but persist anyway.

My book, Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training, explains the perceived connections avid athletes make between exercise and leadership. Not all the participants were athletic before they started HIIT. Regardless, they viewed themselves as self-disciplined, stepping outside their comfort zones routinely because they understand that delayed gratification reaps valued rewards. They achieve their goals and feel better about themselves because they had the discipline to persevere. They perceive a strengthening of their muscles, their minds, and their performance as leaders. I interviewed a director for admissions at a prominent medical school. His comment reflects the continued strengthening of character brought about by building his self-discipline muscle. He practices CrossFit®, a form of HIIT that encourages athletes to measure and track their workouts routinely. Recording one’s progress is a technique that helps maintain this discipline.

I’m much better at keeping score both in workouts and in life in terms of: “Are we making progress? Are things getting better? What am I doing intentionally to get better as an athlete, as a boss, as a dad, etc.

He is a self-disciplined and successful leader. I realize that self-discipline is not a muscle. However, conceptualizing it as such is encouraging. Self-discipline is a desired attribute associated with effective leadership and life-coping strategies. Why not strive to make it stronger?

References

Anderson, D. W., Krajewski, H. T., Goffin, R. D., & Jackson, D. N. (2008). A leadership self-efficacy taxonomy and its relation to effective leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(5), 595-608.

Heyn, P., Abreu, B. C., & Ottenbacher, K. J. (2004). The effects of exercise training on elderly persons with cognitive impairment and dementia: a meta-analysis. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 85(10), 1694-1704.

LaStayo, P. C., Ewy, G. A., Pierotti, D. D., Johns, R. K., & Lindstedt, S. (2003). The positive effects of negative work: increased muscle strength and decreased fall risk in a frail elderly population. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 58(5), M419-M424.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

Inflating Sails after Negative Publicity

Starting an organization is exhilarating. Much positive energy inspires stakeholders to embrace the vision as it moves from conception to reality. Once established, organizations are vulnerable to negative publicity, often which is disseminated widely and broadly through social and other media. No matter how much organizations try to delight their customers, it is impossible to satisfy everyone. I envision entrepreneurs feeling stunned by the impact of unfavorable press, like sailors in the ocean who lost the wind that once sustained them. Typically I focus my interests at the intersection of exercise and leadership. Today, however, I offer my reflections on a specific PR dilemma faced by the leadership of CrossFit®, a provider of exercise services (see video What is CrossFit for more information).

CrossFit® is a form of HIIT that has grown rapidly, particularly in the past five years. In 2007, there were 250 affiliate gyms in the CrossFit® community, whereas today there are more than 10,000, according Brendan Greeley’s article “Is CrossFit Dangerous?,” published in the September 4, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. This newer form of HIIT is just beginning to be examined empirically, perhaps because its growth is significant enough to begin attracting the interest of scholars. As a CrossFit® practitioner, I am eager for research on this form of HIIT. The more that is known, the more this system will improve. This, of course, assumes that the empirical research is credible.

According to Greeley (2014), a gym owner from Columbus, Ohio, and CrossFit® headquarters are suing The Ohio State University researchers and the publisher of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research for allegedly falsifying overuse-injury data that were disseminated in a current issue of the publication. I do not have firsthand knowledge of the research or the lawsuit, and therefore I have no opinion on either. However, the scenario presents a hypothetical opportunity to consider how organizations can or should respond. Negative press represents a challenge many leaders face at some point in their careers. Once circulated, leaders must consider crafting a response. The adage “doing nothing is doing something” applies. Ignoring the publicity may be misconstrued as implicit agreement.

This example raises the question of how much harm is caused by negative publicity. Understandably, most assume that consumers focus on the negative messages and change their outlook toward the organization and its brand. Research suggests that people give more credence to negative than positive messages when they make judgments, and the negative effects are not erased by denials or direct refutations (Monga & John, 2008). On the other hand, negative publicity may not always cause damage.

Consumers with strong brand attitudes are unlikely to be affected by negative brand publicity. These consumers defend their strong attitudes towards the brand, rallying to the brand’s defense by elaborating pro-brand sentiments or mounting counterarguments against the negative publicity, thereby neutralizing its potential negative impact … Firms can also encourage a focus on pro-brand sentiments by shoring up positive associations to the brand, which diverts attention away from the negative publicity (Monga & John, 2008, p. 320).

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recommends four steps to respond to negative publicity. I surmise that Steps 1 and 4 offer interesting options for damage control. The first step is to go directly to the source to challenge what was said, and to do so in a manner that replaces the negative communication with a positive message. Related and perhaps more pertinent to this example is the circulation of competing statistics to counter the negative press. For example, Greeley (2014) reported that “The injury rate [among CrossFit® practitioners]-about 3 per thousand hours-is similar to rates in gymnastics and Olympic lifting and lower than rates for rugby and other competitive contact sports..” (para. 20). He added:

Studies on triathlons range from 1.4 to 5.5 per thousand; for running, 2.5 to 12.1 per thousand. Nothing so far shows that CrossFit is any more dangerous than anything else. Strenuous physical activity carries an injury risk. It may simply be that as more people are doing CrossFit, more people are being injured (Greeley, 2014, para. 20).

Another strongpoint to convey is that CrossFit® may be better than other forms of exercise simply because its strong community motivates people to persist. Many other exercise routines engage athletes for a month or two; however, the sense of community that is unique to CrossFit® effectively encourages participants to persevere (Greely, 2014).

The NFIB’s second and third recommendations are to “make amends” (NFIB, 2011, para 4) and acknowledge mistakes. Making amends pertains mostly to a customer posting negative feedback via social media. Examples of efforts to repair relationships include free dinners or discounts on future purchases via coupons or vouchers. Acknowledging mistakes, of course, applies to the culpable party. People prefer the truth hands-down.

Fourth, the NFIB recommends inviting supporters to voice their positive experiences on behalf of the organization. The websites The First Rule of CrossFit and 7 Reasons CrossFitters Can’t Stop Talking About CrossFit reflect the passion among CrossFit® athletes who talk almost incessantly about their experiences. The sense of community, commitment, and motivation to improve is the strongest I have witnessed in any organization. CrossFit® gym members are powerful advocates, and word-of-mouth messages are the most credible among competing information sources. This phenomenon complements Monga and John’s (2008) research mentioned above.

Henthorne and Henthorne (1994) offered a set of preventative steps, which I share in closing. I am not endorsing applying these steps to the CrossFit® scenario per se; rather, the principles do apply broadly:

(1) Watch for situations that could attract negative publicity and prevent them.

(2) Actively seek out customers’ concerns and complaints, and address them before they escalate.

(3) Scan the environment inside and outside the organization to uncover chatter of perceived problems. Equipped with information, even if not from the source but from the “grapevine,” one may develop an informed response.

(4) Evaluate the likely effect of any incidents on the organization.

Like it or not, negative publicity is a threat all organizations should take seriously. One cannot erase a message once the public receives it; however, the four steps suggested by the NFIB plus the perspectives shared by the Henthornes’ (1994) and Monga and John (2008) may assuage the damage, thus helping leaders refocus the organization toward building its future.

References

Henthorne, B.H. & Henthorne, T.L. (1994). The tarnished image: Anticipating and minimizing the impact of negative publicity in health services organizations. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, ISSN 0736-3761, 07/1994, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp. 44 – 54

Monga, A.B. & John, D.R. (2008). When does negative publicity hurt? The moderating influence of analytic versus holistic thinking. Journal of Consumer Psychology, ISSN 1057-7408, 2008, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 320 – 332

Copyright© 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

What “Really” Looks Good in an Employee?

Claire Suddath posted a quiz concerning the disadvantages of women in the workplace in the July 28-August 3, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businesweek (p. 62). She shared these interesting tidbits:

  • Although 54% of the U.S. workforce reports to a male boss, a 2012 MIT study suggests that women cannot count on female bosses to help them advance their careers.
  • Male managers who are married to working women are more apt to recommend female employees for promotion than are men married to stay-at-home women.
  • Blondes earn 7% more than brunettes.
  • Women in organizations led by CEOs whose first children are female earn 1.1% more on average. Wages drop for all those reporting to CEOs with firstborn sons.
  • Women wearing makeup are considered more competent and professional; however, women who perceive other women as dressing “too fancy” are “put off” by their attire.
  • A woman’s weight influences her earning potential. “Even very thin women are punished when they gain a little” (p. 64). There is a correlation also between an increase in a woman’s BMI and a drop in income for both the woman and her spouse.
  • Good posture affects the level of power others perceive women to have.

Perhaps all women should dye their hair blonde, lose weight, practice balancing books on their heads for improved posture, wear makeup and khakis, and accept a position only if the boss is a male manager with a firstborn daughter, and married to a working woman. Yes, I am being facetious. What a superficial list!

The world isn’t fair. Although perception is reality, its effects are powerful. These findings reflect collective practices that are unethical and illegal. One cannot confront this behavior directly because managers have learned how to discriminate covertly in the last 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement began. A manager would never tell an employee “You are overweight so you are not getting a raise.” Rather, the manager would find other reasons that most probably could not be connected to discrimination.

Transformational leaders coach, encourage, and support employees. These are gender-blind behaviors. Through my research findings (shared in detail in my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training) I suggest that transformational leaders hire employees who embrace their vision, which aligns also with the mission of the organization. Once on the team, these leaders manage to their employees’ strengths. They provide growth opportunities that are based on their skills and interests. They want their employees to shine because they realize when their employees excel, they “look” good and the organization benefits. Perhaps there is a need to redefine our notion of “good looks.” Employees who are motivated, energetic, enthusiastic, work hard and deliver results could be the new definition of attractive. A win-win for all.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved

“Conflict is the Beginning of Consciousness” –M. Esther Harding (1888-1971)

Recent media reports concerning the clash between Joan Rivers and her mentor, Johnny Carson, remind me of how uncomfortable I feel when conflict escalates and relationships dissolve. Apparently Rivers and Carson were close, yet never spoke again after Rivers hosted a show scheduled to run at the same time as Carson’s on a competing network. Although I have studied conflict resolution and know better, I prefer to move through life conflict-free.

Conflict is manifest in four domains: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup. Causes may be economic, such as when resources are limited. Ideological or value differences are another source of disputes. The desire to exert influence and wield one’s power is a third cause. Five styles for managing conflict include accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, competing, and compromising (Types of Conflict.org). The style selected depends on the situation and one’s personal style. In the Rivers-Carson relationship, it seems none of the above was used successfully because their relationship ended.

The absence of conflict is a true concern. Leaders who surround themselves with “yes men/women” stifle creativity and innovation and limit their potential for making sound decisions. Employees watch leaders closely to uncover cues that signal their preferences. Organizations with tall hierarchies risk information loss as important developments are stuck as they try to move up the chain. Filtering information to protect the leader and the messenger is a natural inclination; however, withholding facts delays consequences and may prevent timely responses to trouble. Creating an environment in which it is safe to broach difficult topics is essential.

Groupthink, identified by Irving Janis in 1972, is a dynamic that results in flawed decisions because team members are insulated from critical information. Symptoms of groupthink include:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions (PsySR).

Leaders can thwart groupthink by abstaining from sharing their predispositions at the beginning of a meeting, assignment, or project. Norm-setting is critical also. Each member of the team should be encouraged to offer dissenting views and to evaluate ideas of everyone on the team critically. Asking team members to share deliberations with others they trust, then reporting back the reactions of their trusted-others promotes creative idea generation. Inviting outside experts to meetings to challenge thoughts, requesting members to play “devil’s advocate” to challenge the team’s assumptions, and examining closely the actions of competitors to anticipate possible scenarios are other strategies that prevent groupthink (PsySR).

If managed poorly, the consequences of conflict are negative and include reduced productivity, low morale, unprofessional conduct, and more frequent and persistent clashes. Constructive conflict leads to a heightened awareness of important business challenges, an improved focus on organizational priorities, a broader recruitment of employee talents, and an appreciation of the benefits derived from people’s differences (Managementhelp.org).

The adage “There are three sides to every story. Yours, theirs, and the truth” applies to conflict. Although we cannot control others, we do have the choice to examine ourselves with a critical eye and to listen to the concerns of others with an open mind. If conflict resolution were easy, we wouldn’t have wars, divorces, lawsuits, mediation, arbitration, or dissolved partnerships and friendships. Making a concerted effort to engage productively in constructive conflict seems a worthy goal. I can’t help but ponder what the world of comedy would have been like had Rivers and Carson worked through their differences.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved