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Why Public Critique Harms the One Giving It

Praise in public, critique in private.  It’s Management 101.  Most decent leaders know it’s detrimental to reprimand employees in public.  It’s unkind and does not improve performance.

What’s less talked about though, is the impact public critique has on the person who is giving it.

I was recently working with a team.  There was one manager who, despite his promises to do otherwise, often critiqued his people in front of their peers.

One day, the team got the last laugh.

Early one morning, the manager called out one of his service people for incorrectly handling an order.  As usual, he did it in front of everyone.  As the manager went on about the mistake, he began to get the sense his team was smirking.  He was right.  At the conclusion of the manager’s rant, the service person smiled sweetly and said, “I followed the new policy.  We got a memo about it last week, or weren’t you aware of that?”

Mic drop.  The manager looked like a fool.  The entire team delighted in seeing him proved wrong.

It’s an extreme, but not uncommon example.  Management science has widely documented the impact public critique has on employees.  Daniel Goleman, the co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, explains in the Harvard Business Review how criticism triggers anxiety and negative emotions.  When we’re told about things that we’re doing wrong, Goleman says, it “shuts us down, puts us on the defensive, and narrows our possibilities to rescue operations.”  When it happens in public, you’re more concerned about how you look in front of your peers than you are about rectifying any wrong.  You can’t hear the facts; all you feel is the emotional sting.

Managers who cause this emotional sting, wind up paying a price.  Here are three reasons why critiquing in public circles back to hurt the boss:

  1. You might be wrong.
    Even if your employees are poor performers, and you’re right 99% of the time, as the above example illustrates, sometimes the team has information you don’t. The 1% of the time when you’re wrong, it’s fatal.  If you critique your people in public, they will take great delight in returning the favor. They’ll look for ways to make you look bad, not just in front of them, but in front of your boss.
  2. It puts you at risk for bigger mistakes.
    My father always told me, “No matter what your role, part of your job description is to make your boss successful, which includes helping them avoid mistakes.” When you criticize your employees in public, you break their trust.  They will no longer have your back.  If they see you making a mistake, they’ll let you hang yourself.  You forgot to turn something into the big boss?  It was an honest mistake, but nobody on your team will tell you about it.
  1. Your influence erodes.
    If someone shames you, the only way to save yourself is to ignore it. Your team might not publicly revolt.  They may even make some short-term improvements.  But long term?  The cold furry burns.  They either disengage to save their spirits, or they look for ways to get you back.  Sometimes they do both.  Either way, your ability to affect their performance is gone.

Publicly reprimanding people doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work for employees, and it’s horrible for the boss.