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Getting into the headspace to critique with care

(November 21, 2023 Newsletter)

“Critiquing with care works best when that naming happens within a context of unconditional regard, that just and loving attention that conveys unshakable respect for another person’s struggles.” David Brooks, How to Know a Person pg. 252.

Easier said than done. Why?

What happens: So much of our work is transactional, which has its benefits but also its drawbacks.

  • On the one hand, it allows us to keep a healthy distance, to focus on just getting the work done, to turn off at the end of the day.

  • On the other hand, staying transactional means missing opportunities for mind-melding closeness, for being invited into the person’s mindset, assumptions, concerns – and ever having the chance for that to be mutual.

Why it matters: When we stay in the transactional with our colleagues, it’s easy to abandon “unconditional regard” and “unshakable respect,” and do anything but provide “just and loving attention.” Someone misses a deadline? Your automatic reaction can be that they’re incompetent, don’t know how to manage their time, are selfish, or worse. So we write them off or enter into tense confrontation, instead of a conversation that invites reflection and growth.

Where do we start? In order to “critique with care,” we’ll need to keep front and center those high levels of regard and respect. How can you do so when the team member misses deadlines, hands in sloppy work, or refuses to cooperate?

  • As Brooks describes earlier in the book (pg. 31), everyone contains “some piece of themselves that…gives them infinite value and dignity…We’re not equal in might, intelligence, or wealth, but we are all equal on the level of our souls.”

How to get into the headspace: Sound too woo-woo to you? No worries... Let’s be more specific. Here are five questions to prepare your mindset, coming into a conversation in which you plan to critique with care:

  1. What generous interpretation of their misstep will enable you to approach them with the levels of regard and respect that Brooks invites?

  2. When have you seen this person excel? What impact has that had on you, the team, or the organization?

  3. Which of your personal values will enable you to critique with care?

  4. Which of your struggles can serve as a source of compassion? To be clear, I ask this not so you’ll excuse real concerns, but to connect and seek solutions as peers.

  5. What internal indicators can you anticipate will signal that you’re drifting into judgment? In other words, what thoughts might run through your mind, what tension can you expect to feel in your body?

In short: Moving past transactional relationships at work isn’t easy, especially when the starting place is pointing out something that isn’t working. But using these questions when planning can help you stay grounded and open, so you can accompany your colleague or team member toward success, rather than embarrassment or defensiveness.


The Coaching Corner


It’s a simple but powerful exercise – I end many meetings with clients by asking people to share what they’re grateful for. In group settings, people often express thanks for specific things that others said to them in the meeting, but I’m cool with people offering broader gratitude.

“What are you grateful for?” Seems like a wonderful question to ask everyone on your team this week. Here are some more variations:

  • Let’s all share two things we’re each grateful for: one personal and one professional.

  • What’s one thing you’ve come to have extra gratitude for in this past year?

  • What’s one thing for which you’re grateful but often overlook?

  • Brief activity: Who are you grateful for? Take out your phone and shoot them a quick text or email now letting them know you’re thinking of them.


Recommendations Middle Managers: this article from SHRM makes a strong case for the investment organizations should be making in rethinking the role and reskilling their people. The Myth of the CEO as Ultimate Decision Maker: "The role of the CEO is not about making every decision, but rather about creating an environment in which decisions are made effectively. By shaping decisions rather than making them, CEOs empower their teams, foster agility, and drive the organization toward success." Sure, but how? Read on.


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