A 4-step guide for turning criticism into commitment and engagement

How to turn criticism into commitment and engagement

There are a number of steps HR can take to help turn employees and leaders who prefer criticism and fault-finding into individuals who are more committed and engaged, writes Dave Hanna

Have you ever come across an associate or colleague who seemingly finds fault or criticises “everything” that is going on in the organisation? Some critics make a habit out of practicing their trade. Their issues may change over time, but their criticism is constant.

How do you relate to such individuals? Ignore them? Tell them their criticism isn’t fair or justified? Suffer and move on? Here is one example of such a critic:

Bill worked in a manufacturing plant that was praised for its customer focus, high product quality, flexible teamwork, and innovation. But Bill was always criticising plant leaders and his union president for a series of shortcomings. I had the opportunity to meet Bill and get his view on how the plant was doing.

“I’m disappointed by how we operate every day,” Bill told me, “It doesn’t match up with what we have said we would do in our plant vision statement. I came here because I wanted to be part of something that was truly special. But too much of it seems to be just like every other place I’ve worked.”

Do Bill’s comments reveal him as a malcontent, a person who goes out of his way to find fault with his leaders? Having worked with the plant leaders and the union president, I knew they shared some of Bill’s concerns.

So, how do you move from criticism to committed action?

“Leaders must lead out in fostering a culture of dialogue because people often are fearful to bear bad news to the boss”

First of all, change your view of the critic. A leadership expert once told me, “Behind every concern there is an underlying commitment. If you didn’t have any commitment, you wouldn’t waste your energy raising the concern.”

This insight gave me a whole new perspective on criticism. Even if I don’t like the criticism, I don’t want to shut down a committed associate. How might we tap into the energy of such a committed person?

Second, hone your listening skills. Dutch professor André de Waal’s global study on what makes a high-performance organisation identifies a culture of dialogue as one of the key factors. Such a culture encourages open information sharing and feedback up and down the hierarchy and across peer groups and departments. Leaders must lead out in fostering a culture of dialogue because people often are fearful to bear bad news to the boss.

Third, get them involved in improving things. Ask them for their thoughts about how to improve things. Check their interest in being a member of a task force to study the situation in more detail. Invite them to be part of a pilot project.

Sometimes the critic won’t have any clear views on how to improve things. Asking them to research and test new tools and approaches will help them gain deeper understanding of the issues. This new understanding coupled with their commitment might lead to new solutions.

For example, Barbara worked in a group that had poor teamwork. Barbara had been labelled a “malcontent” because she was always pointing out how group members pulled apart, argued constantly, and were getting poor results. One day the company training manager invited her to join a new training team whose sole focus would be to improve teamwork in the operation.

“You want me?” she asked the training manager incredulously.

“Yes,” he said. “You are very articulate and we know how frustrated you get when the team doesn’t work together. I believe with your skills and your passion you will be a great trainer.”

“Ask them for their thoughts about how to improve things”

Barbara became a great trainer and she and her teammates helped their division become a top-performing unit. The critic had been transformed into a committed leader.

4 steps for moving from criticism to commitment

  1. Understand the concern AND the commitment.
    • Repeat back the words and the nonverbal signals (signs of commitment?) you have perceived to test your understanding of the criticism.
    • Ask, “Have I understood you correctly?”
    • The ability to accurately play back what you heard and observed (without being defensive) is hard work. It shows people that they and their viewpoints are important to you.
  2. Understand the magnitude of the concern.
    • Invite the critic to join you in getting representative feedback (quickly) from a wider audience.
    • Ask questions such as, “Is this a serious concern?” “Is it widespread or limited?” “What has been your experience?”
  3. Brainstorm with those at the source of the concern. Go to those closest to the issue and ask:
    • “What would eliminate this concern?”
    • “How can we systematise the correction?”
  4. Form an action plan and test it with the others.
    • Ask the critic to help you formulate a plan or be an early reviewer of it.
    • “Here is our plan for moving forward. What do you think?”
    • “Will this eliminate this problem in the future?”

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