The One Soul-Crushing Mistake Leaders Make
February 1, 2016

The One Soul-Crushing Mistake Leaders Make

by Brian de Haaff

Get this. It’s a crazy story but true. A friend just shared it with me. A team heads into a meeting with the general manager of a division. He strolls in late, puts his feet up on the table, sneers at the presenter while she is speaking, and then blurts out, “That’s really stupid.”

How do you think that made the presenter feel? Less than great, I am guessing. Probably really small.

We have high expectations at Aha! and our team works extremely hard. We work at a fast clip, but not everything is going to be a home run every time. Sometimes we have to deliver feedback — constructive criticism, if you will — that redirects the person and gets the work back on track.

Feedback can be tough for anyone to hear — and hard to deliver in the right way.

That is why it is critical to use extra care when offering feedback to anyone. I believe in being clear and direct so that there is no confusion. But it also takes finesse to get your point across effectively so the other person can continue working with confidence towards their goals.

But there is one soul-crushing mistake that some leaders continue to make: They get personal.

Instead of delivering feedback that directly addresses the idea or work, they resort to picking on the person who had the idea or did the work. Or worse, they stoop to name-calling, which is hard for anyone to hear without thinking that it is personally directed at them.

While these types of negative tactics certainly command a person’s attention, they can cause damage that is difficult — sometimes impossible — to mend.

Your teammates deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of whether they present a half-baked idea or a great one. Never resort to low blows, because when you do they:

Cause embarrassment

You have important feedback that you must deliver in a timely manner to keep work on track. But instead of pointing out necessary corrections in the work itself, you decide to get personal — and strike right at the person’s character. And if you deliver this withering criticism in front of other co-workers, your teammate might wish they could disappear rather than face the team.

Inspire fear

Using fear is no way to build a strong team. Instead of promoting kindness in the workplace, you promote an atmosphere of constant apprehension, as team members worry that they will be your next target. They will choose to be silent — it’s much safer, after all — than to freely participate.

Set a poor example

Leaders should be intentional about modeling the behavior they hope their team will adopt. But picking on others in the workplace is a tactic of a schoolyard bully, not a professional. Others in the company may witness and mimic your negative, juvenile approach — and set the stage for a bullying problem within the company.

Shut down creativity

The biggest roadblock to creative ideas is the fear of ridicule. Others who witness your attack on one person will learn quickly what not to do. They will be reluctant to contribute any new ideas in such a hostile environment — they will want to keep ideas to themselves and stay as far away from your spotlight as possible. This can hinder innovation and growth.

Harm yourself

When you resort to personal insults instead of constructive feedback, you ultimately hurt your own ability to lead. Your obvious lack of self-control and immaturity will cause your team to lose any respect they once had for you. And do not be surprised when unlucky targets of your past attacks find an opportunity to strike back at you.

Feedback is an absolute necessity at work — and in any relationship, for that matter. But it should be meant to instruct, not destroy.

Leaders have a responsibility to move their organizations forward. But they also have an opportunity to inspire their team to greatness. They can use feedback to affirm every person’s value to the team and build them up, not tear them down.

How do you provide feedback?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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