Gary Cohen

Article Summary:

Techniques for leaders to learn how to create results while restricting their criticism of others.

Ask, Don't Tell

Due to the power differential between leaders and their team members, leaders must learn not only how to tolerate criticism, but also to restrict their criticism of others. When we are criticized, we feel like our bodies are under attack. This fear or panic causes our prehistoric, reptilian brain to flood with blood. Rational thought is restricted, and, instead, we concentrate on our bodily impulses: fight or flight. A "flooded" person (whether it is the leader or a team member) is of little use when there is a problem to be solved.

Debra, a COO of a very large food manufacturer in the Southwest, grew tired of notifying department heads about problems she found, like the shortened shelf life of a potato that was roasted in a new oil. "I want to know what we are doing to solve this problem!" she would demand at the beginning of a meeting. "And why didn't anyone bring this problem to my attention?" She ranted and railed because she wanted her team to detect and solve these problems in the future. Unfortunately, all they heard was "She is out to find someone to blame!" Their brains subsequently flooded and they shifted into defense mode.

I invited Debra to consider a question-based approach to generate behavioral change. Rather than calling out individuals in a public setting (which creates more tension and, therefore, quicker flooding), here is what I suggested she do:

1. Speak with individual department heads when you detect a problem in their specific areas.

2. Start by asking a general question ("How are things going in your area?").

3. Keep an open mind. If you let the team member dictate the conversation, you might learn that there are problems that dwarf the potato shelf-life issue. Or you might find that the shelf life was a concession made as part of a larger cost/benefit calculation. Or you might find that the team member has been having personal problems that could be contributing to his or her poor performance.

4. If you feel like the team member is holding back information, ask a slightly more specific question (What are the top five priorities in your department right now?). You might learn that the problem with the shelf life was already detected. If so, you would now know who detected the problem, how, and when. With this information, you could set about correcting this systemic problem.

5. If the team member does not consider the shelf-life issue the top priority, ask why. You might find that you need to re-order your priorities as a result.

6. It the team member's answer still does not take into account all the consequences you foresee, drill down one level deeper with your questions (What impact will the shelf-life have on inventory?).

Even constructive criticism can feel like an attack. By asking questions, you disarm the reptilian-brain functions. No longer will team members be paralyzed by fight-or-flight responses. They will be prepared to work with you to detect and solve problems.

Gary Cohen co-founded a company in 1987 with only $4,000 in start-up money. Over the years the company grew from 2 to 2200 employees. "City Business," a Minneapolis/St. Paul publication, distinguished Gary as one of their "40 under 40" award winners.

Gary received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and attended Harvard Business School. He has participated in several leadership programs at institutions including the Covey Leadership Center and Disney University and the Aspen Institute as a Crown fellow. He is now a respected Executive Coach and the founder of C02Partners.

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