Criticism and Conversation in the Age of Bringing Our Whole Selves to Work

As the popularity of holistic working environments grows, even the largest corporations are tweaking their attitudes and professional expectations. The push to bring your entire self to work is positive, because when we acknowledge the humanity of ourselves and others, we give permission to take greater risks, forge deeper connections and ultimately deliver better work in a more highly collaborative environment.

… Except when that doesn’t happen. With great power, as they say, comes great responsibility. Along with the idea of a more open, honest, human workplace comes the necessity to give careful consideration to how we deliver criticism and conduct conversation with our coworkers.

This topic came up a few weeks ago with an acquaintance of mine who manages a team at a large multinational corporation. She was talking with me about how she’s reconsidered her strategy when coaching her team because, as she noticed herself when receiving criticism from her manager, people who took her company’s “whole self” push seriously tended to become more sensitive to criticism, because they were more likely to tie the criticism directly to personal aspects of themselves.

It’s easy to see how that can happen. Coaching for growth and delivering criticism is difficult enough in a traditional workplace environment. Regardless of how “personal” your office is, you still need to learn how each member of your team best takes criticism, and how they feel the most appreciated, in order to communicate successfully. When you add in the certain degree of personal self, you need to pay even closer attention, and recognize that while it is not your job to coddle your team, it is your job to deliver criticism in a manner that will genuinely help them, not cause them to get defensive or shut down.

So, how does that work? Going back to the discussion I had a few weeks ago, the manager in question said that she had started getting more intentionally explicit and considerate. General criticism that can’t be backed up with specific workplace-relevant examples is far more likely to be taken personally. And you have to be honest with yourself — do you mean it personally? We need to consciously separate in our minds what criticism is relevant to the job at hand, and what may simply be an aspect of someone’s personality that we don’t care for or wish was different. That can become harder to do when we bring our whole selves to work, but that’s also when it becomes the most important.

General criticism often starts with language like “I feel like you…” or “It seems to me …” — arbitrary language that creates a more personal tone, because when you deliver it you are directly connecting it to your own emotions. It’s what you feel, it’s what you perceive. Explicit criticism comes more in the form of “I have noticed…” or “On a few occasions you have…” — which then directs the conversation more toward observations and specific events. i.e. “On a few occasions you have missed important deadlines, and I’d like to talk about how we can make sure that doesn’t happen again and make timeliness a priority.” This is very different than “I feel like you don’t deliver on time” or worse, “It seems to me that you’ve gotten lazy.” The first criticism allows you to cite specific examples that back up your feedback. The last example is a statement of a presumed personality trait.

As stated before, the idea of bringing your whole self to work is a positive one, and we all stand to benefit from it. But we can’t support such a seismic shift in the working environment if we do not also evolve our criticism and management styles. This change also forces us to investigate some of our own unconscious bias. At one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of being critical of someone for reasons that, if we are genuinely honest with ourselves, simply come down to “they don’t work/communicate/think/problem-solve the same way I do, and I am certain that my way is better.”

And your way might be better — for you. But managing someone is not about shaping them into another version of yourself. It is about helping them exercise their own creative and analytical muscles to become a better, more capable team member, and ultimately a more capable professional far beyond their current position.

Managerial success in the age of the whole self will no doubt require some extra leg work, and some honest conversations with your team to get feedback about your feedback (yes, really). But in addition to the upside of a happier, healthier team that delivers on a higher level, working through the most effective ways to deliver critique will also create better managers. And who doesn’t love a win-win?

Rachel PComment