Here’s a (possibly) new thought : voicing criticism about someone’s work is not a birthright.
Next time someone comes up to you at the watercooler and starts criticising colleague X, ask “what should X have done differently?”, and watch them do a double take.
It is so so easy to voice criticism. It is so so hard to generate constructive criticism. The right to state an opinion is hard earned. Or at least it should be.
The unfettered exercise of an unearned right to criticize is one of the worst things that can happen to your team. If left unchecked, it can have a few terrible results: i) it does not take long for everyone to realize that controlling the narrative is more important than doing quality work ii) given the relative nature of performance assessment, someone who controls the narrative (is loudest, most sneaky etc.) gains an unfair advantage iii) meritocracy dies a violent death in the ensuing free-for-all scramble to own everyone else’s narrative.
Not to say that the organization should play a Big Brother type role, and place undue restrictions on the flow of information. However, there IS a way to both avoid degrading morale, AND benefit by encouraging critical thinking.
To do this, you need to lead by example on two rules:
1. Person A can voice criticism about Person B, GIVEN A’s a relative expert in that area. A relative expert is someone who is generally acknowledged to have a better track record.
2. Criticism MUST be accompanied by a specific suggestion that will improve the situation. Not specifics about the fuckup itself, but specifics about how the supposed fuckup can be fixed.
In effect, you’ll be banning statements like “Sam clearly didn’t hire the right tech lead for his team”, or “Reema should manage her team better”. Not only is this feedback useless, it is actively harmful. “Right”, “Better” are easy, blanket adjectives that do little to make change. However they CAN negatively impact the people concerned, even if only stated casually. In this case, they must be qualified with what the right tech lead looks like, and a few ideas on how Reema could manage her team better. Giving these suggestions requires an understanding of the situation. Maybe Sam didn’t have as much hiring budged as he’d needed.
In effect, your team will also be generating more thoughtful ideas and constructive feedback that helps improve things.
How do you go about doing this? Lead by example. Next time someone invites you join a criticismfest, refrain until you’ve gathered the required facts and have enough context to come up with something constructive.
TLDR: Be constructive in your criticism
At this stage you might be thinking, did I just read a 500 word monologue about what could be said in 2 words: Be constructive?
Unfortunately, as obvious as this might have sounded, it is far from being common practice. To actually do this, it will need leadership to actively reinforce this message and lead by example.
I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise – Noel Coward