Don’t Get Mad: Get Even-Keeled

Emotional fluctuations we experience in intimate relationships can often take similar form in the workplace. Criticisms are communicated as personal attacks, rather than concerns to be addressed. Daily irritations fuel disgust, sarcasm, and contempt. These situations result in defensiveness, dodging of responsibility, and a passive resistance that comes from feeling unfairly treated.

A common mistake we see in workplace communication is a generalized statement about someone’s work, such as, “You’re screwing up.” This leaves the recipient feeling helpless, angry, and underappreciated for the various tasks she’s completing successfully. And from the vantage point of emotional intelligence, this statement displays gross ignorance of the feelings it will trigger, and the devastating effect those feelings will have on a person’s motivation, energy, and confidence.

In a survey of managers asked to think back to times they blew up at employees, many recalled making personal attacks in the heat of the moment. The employees who received these reacted most often by becoming defensive, making excuses, or evading responsibility. They then avoided contact with the offending manager. The managers were only further dissatisfied, setting off a cycle that, in the business world, usually ends in the employee quitting or being fired.

J.R. Larson, a University of Illinois at Urbana psychologist, elaborates on this:

Most problems in an employee’s performance are not sudden; they develop slowly over time. When the boss fails to let his feelings be known promptly, it leads to his frustration building up slowly. Then, one day, he blows up about it. If the criticism had been given earlier on, the employee would have been able to correct the problem. Too often people criticize only when things boil over. That’s when they give the criticism in the worst way, in a tone of biting sarcasm, calling to mind a long list of grievances they had kept to themselves. Such attacks backfire. They are received as an affront, so the recipient becomes angry in return. It’s the worst way to motivate someone.’’

Harry Levinson, a psychoanalyst turned corporate consultant, offers the following advice on the art of the critique, which is heavily connected to the art of praise:

Be specific. Pick an event that illustrates a key problem or pattern of deficiency, such as the inability to do certain parts of a job well. Focus on what the person did well, then be very clear about what was done poorly and how it could be changed. “Specificity,” Levinson points out, “is just as important for praise as for criticism. I won’t say that vague praise has no effect at all, but it doesn’t have much, and you can’t learn from it.”

Offer a solution. The critique, like all useful feedback, should point to a way to fix the problem. It demoralizes people just to hear that they are acting unsatisfactorily without understanding how to improve. This critique should open the door to possibilities that the person did not realize were there, or sensitize her to deficiencies that need attention, but also requires suggestions about how to take care of these problems.

Be present. Critiques, like praise, are most effective face-to-face and in private. People who are uncomfortable giving criticism – or offering praise – are likely to ease the burden on themselves by doing it at a distance, such as in a memo. But this makes the communication too impersonal, and robs the person receiving it of an opportunity for a response or clarification.

Be sensitive. This is a call for empathy. Pay close attention to how you deliver the critique. Tune in to the impact of what you say on the person on the receiving end. Managers who have little empathy, Levinson points out, are most prone to giving feedback in a hurtful fashion. The net effect of such criticism is destructive: instead of resulting in corrective action, this callousness creates an emotional backlash of resentment, bitterness, defensiveness, and distance.

Levinson also offers some emotional counsel for those at the receiving end of criticism:

  • Regard the criticism as valuable information about your work, not as a personal attack.
  • Be wary of the impulse toward defensiveness instead of taking responsibility.
  • If the conversation becomes too upsetting, ask to resume the meeting later, after a period to absorb the difficult message and cool down a bit.
  • Take this as an opportunity to work with the critic to solve the problem.

To learn more about superlative workplace communication and conflict resolution, register for my American Management Association course Leading with Emotional Intelligence (onsite or online throughout the summer).

Additional resources to develop emotionally intelligent management skills:

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters: A compilation of my Harvard Business Review articles and other business journal writings in one volume. This often-cited, proven-effective material has become essential reading for leaders, coaches and educators committed to fostering stellar management, increasing performance, and driving innovation.

Resonant Leadership: Inspiring Others Through Emotional Intelligence: This master class by Richard Boyatzis (co-author of Primal Leadership and Chair of Organizational Development at the Weatherhead School of Management) offers you the tools to become the leader you want to be—including exercises to reassess valuable and effective techniques.

The HR and EI Collection: The combination of books and audio tools offers actionable findings on how leaders can foster group flow to maximize innovation, drive, and motivation to deliver bottom-line results.

What aspect of your organization’s culture needs to change? Take this short quiz for a quick diagnostic.

Supplemental reading:

Getting Sophisticated About Emotional Intelligence

Bringing Focus to People Problems

How to Overcome a Survival Mode Culture

Photo: Everett Collection / shutterstock