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Published 16 April 2013 11:12, Updated 17 April 2013 07:06
Silent censure: The praise in public, criticise in private maxim can unwittingly undermine a team’s performance.
Imagine the following scenario: You are holding your weekly team leadership meeting. You are discussing with your direct reports how to handle project delays that have caused the team to miss its quarterly numbers. You know that Ted, one of your direct reports, missed two key deadlines. You’ve seen this kind of behaviour before from Ted, and you’ve seen the team’s frustration with him. You decide to not say anything to Ted in the meeting, but afterward you talk to him privately about how he’s letting you and the team down.
If you’re like most leaders, you believe in the adage “Praise in public and criticise in private.” So when an employee does something that negatively affects the team, you usually talk to him in private. But this can be a dangerous adage to follow because it significantly reduces accountability, the quality of team decisions and your team’s ability to manage itself. As Richard Hackman, a psychology professor at Harvard, once said that the “most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves.” Here’s why criticising in private undermines your team, and what you can do to build a smarter team starting today.
Is your leadership team a real team – one in which members are interdependent on one another for meeting group goals? If so, they should also be accountable to one another for working together to achieve those goals, including how they rely on, work with and make decisions together. Yet when you criticise in private for behaviour that occurred in a team meeting or affects the team, you undermine team members’ accountability to one another. You send the message that team members are accountable only to you, not to the team. You also send the entire team the message that they don’t need to hold one another accountable – you’ll do it for them. In short, you shift accountability from the team to you.
You also make it more difficult to solve the problem. If you tell Ted that his missing deadlines contributed to the team missing its goals, you and Ted may reach an agreement on how he will change his behaviour, and that may inadvertently create new problems for other team members. Or Ted may tell you that other team members made it difficult for him to meet his deadlines, and it’s not his fault; at that point, you’re likely to become a human pingpong ball, shuttling back and forth between Ted and other team members trying to understand the problem. The information to solve this problem lies with Ted and the other team members.
Why do leaders unwittingly shift team accountability to themselves? First, they’ve been taught correctly that they’re ultimately responsible for the team. Yet they misconstrue this ultimate responsibility and adopt a “one leader in the room” mindset; they believe that they are primarily, if not solely, accountable for how the team functions, including providing negative feedback to their direct reports. Second, research by Chris Argyris and Don Schon – co-authors of Organisational Learning – and my 30 years working with leadership teams shows that in challenging situations, almost all leaders try to minimise the expression of negative feelings: If it’s difficult for you to give negative feedback, you prefer to do it in private than in the team setting.
Leadership isn’t about being comfortable; it’s about being effective, even when you’re uncomfortable. Smart leaders address ineffective behaviour in the team setting when it occurs or when the behaviour affects the team. In the team: That’s where the information, solution and accountability are.
With Ted, you could start by saying something like, “I’m noticing two patterns in our meetings. First, Ted, this looks like the third time in a month that you haven’t met a deadline for the team. Am I off?” Assuming Ted agrees, you continue. “The second pattern is that each time Ted says he hasn’t met a deadline, I notice the rest of you sigh or shake your head, but you don’t say anything to Ted. Am I on target?” Assuming people agree, you continue. “Since these meetings are the place for solving problems, and the team can’t meet its deadlines if Ted doesn’t meet his, I’m curious, what leads you not to say something to Ted in the meetings?”
If you want to create a more effective team, you and your direct reports will need to change how you handle accountability. Here’s what you can do, starting today:
Tell your team you’ve been unintentionally shifting accountability from the team to you. Explain how you see it affecting the team’s results and working relationships. Give some specific examples, and ask team members how they see it.
State that you want a team in which members can openly and constructively give one another feedback. Explain how this will help the team. Ask them for their reactions.
Ask your team members what they need to hold one another accountable for how they are working together. They may need others to share more information about their parts of the business. They may need to learn how to discuss one another’s behavior in a way that’s productive and doesn’t contribute to defensive reactions. They may need to change their mindset so they see themselves accountable to the team, not just to you. They may want some assurances from other team members or you.
Take a few minutes at the end of each meeting to discuss how team members are holding one another accountable and how to improve it. Making this shift isn’t easy. Investing a few minutes to discuss what worked well and how the team wants to improve next time will increase the chance that there is more accountability in the future. Ultimately, that will save time and foster better team decisions.
Roger Schwarz is an organizational psychologist, leadership team consultant, and president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates. He is the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results.
© 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.