Leadership experts have often said, “Always praise in public and critique in private.” It’s become a rule of thumb for leaders who want to publicly encourage excellence and protect their team members’ confidence.
But isn’t there a tradeoff to keeping criticism between the leader and the team member? By making feedback private, aren’t leaders missing out on a crucial teaching opportunity?
What to Consider Before Critiquing a Team Member in Front of Others
The words “correcting,” “critiquing,” and “criticizing” conjure images of finger-pointing. Some team members see a fine line between setting a standard and out-and-out shaming. That makes the feedback process absolutely critical.
There are five questions I would ask myself before publicly correcting any team member.
WHAT OUTCOME ARE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
Dr. John Maxwell defines leadership as “influence – nothing more, nothing less.” Leaders influence. They impact. Even though others’ actions and circumstances are beyond their control, leaders affect change. How? By remembering this phrase:
Event plus response/reaction equals outcome. (E + R = O)
This simple success equation reminds us that we always have some power to drive a particular result. You can’t control what this person said, what they did, or what they didn’t do that warrants your feedback. But you can control the outcome by being intentional about responding, not reacting.
If you critique that team member in front of others, what are you achieving? Are you sending a message? Are you putting them in their place? What will that do for their confidence? What will that do for team morale? And instead, what if you were to privately offer them constructive feedback? Will that communicate that you want to help them develop past the roadblock? How will that contribute to your ultimate leadership development goals?
DO YOU WANT TO CREATE MORE ROWERS OR SINKERS?
Bob Keheller, founder of the Employee Engagement Group, once offered a powerful metaphor for employee engagement:
Bob presented a picture of a boat, think a canoe, with ten heads showing in the boat. Bob shared that based on employee engagement surveys if this were your team of ten people in the boat, only three of them would be rowing with you. What about the other seven, you ask? Well, according to the engagement survey averages, five would be sitting with the oar across their laps, watching the scenery go by, and the last two would be actively trying to sink your boat. (How Can Leaders Turn Watchers into Rowers?)
Before critiquing in public, ask yourself: are my remarks more likely to turn a watcher into a rower, or a sinker? Or even worse, could they turn a rower into a watcher or a sinker?
WHY ARE YOU OFFERING FEEDBACK?
“Are you trying to help me? Do you care about me? Can I trust you?”
When you are in a position of leadership, your followers are asking you these three questions at all times. They need to be sure of answers before they will come out of the feedback conversation hearing what they need to hear.
Remember the “R” in E + R = O stands for respond and react. Responding happens after reflection; reacting happens after emotion. Responding is driven by intention; reacting is driven by instinct. What is driving your feedback?
Ask yourself these three questions before having difficult feedback conversations, or even during them. Check your motives:
- Am I saying this because I want to help them?
- What do I want out of this conversation?
- Am I trying to build a relationship with them?
- Am I fostering a dynamic where they would be willing to follow me through their challenges?
And then, consider if those motives are better communicated in public or in private.
ARE YOU REMEMBERING THE PLATINUM RULE?
If the wealth of personality analysis resources has added any insight to leadership team development, it’s that everyone is unique. Everyone on your team is different. How one person communicates, relates, and perceives is different from all the rest.
In light of that, the golden rule – “Treat everyone how you want to be treated” – falls short. The platinum rule clarifies, “Treat everyone how they want to be treated.”
How well do you know your people? How well do you know what a public critique would do for (or to) them? What are they really hearing when you criticize them in front of their team members? And how is the rest of the team interpreting your feedback?
IS THE LESSON WORTH BEING SHARED WITH EVERYONE?
It seems clear that private critique over public criticism is the healthiest way for leaders to approach feedback. But then we must ask, is it worth critiquing one team member in front of others so that everyone can learn from it?
When I think about it, I’m led back to the outcome I’m trying to achieve. Am I trying to make an example of someone, or am I actually trying to get the whole group on the same page? By correcting in front of the group, am I more likely to help everyone grow, or alienate them?
There are too many variables to account for – too many people with different personality types watching, too much at stake on the team and in the team member, too much that can be taken out of context.
But the concern is valid. After all, if one person said or did the thing that needed correcting, it’s possible that others are saying or doing it, and if it goes uncorrected, it stays uncorrected.
In the past, I’ve approached the team member in private, offered them the constructive feedback, and then brought it to the group with the team member’s go-ahead. No names; no specifics. Just simply, “We had a situation recently, and I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Here’s our standard of performance; here’s our expectation.”
About Perry Holley
Perry Holley is a coach and facilitator with Maxwell Leadership, as well as a published author. As co-host of the Maxwell Leadership Executive Leadership Podcast, he has a passion for developing others and seeing people grow into the leaders they were intended to become.
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