Leadership Caffeine™: Do You See Beauty or Blemishes?

If you’ve ever worked for or around someone who is an expert critic…one of those individuals who can look at a masterpiece and spot a flaw, you know how demoralizing the experience can be. They look at beautiful pictures or great outcomes and focus on describing the flaws.

If you are one of these “Negative Motivators,” this one’s for you!

No Gold Stars Here:

A client struggled with a boss who believed that motivation and inspiration were outcomes of criticism. He wasted no time at every opportunity identifying what he perceived as flaws in the projects, programs, and presentations of his co-workers. When a frustrated and bold employee finally screwed up the courage to ask why he never offered positive support, his answer was immediate; “That’s not my job. I’m supposed to make you perform better, not cheerlead. You want a gold star, go back to kindergarten.”

Uh…OK.  Thanks for the inspiration, I guess.

Look, I’m all for constructive criticism supported by coaching. That’s what we’re supposed to do. However, motivating by providing a never-ending string of criticisms is only going to demoralize people and teams and suck the life and creativity out of your organization.

Beware When You Start Believing Your Own Attempts at Rationalizing Your Behavior:

Every once in awhile, I run into a “Negative Motivator ” who has a well-developed and almost believable rationale for their approach. A few of the comments I’ve heard over time:

We’re all adults, and we don’t need daily pats on the back.

No one achieves greatness because someone was there telling them how great they were every step of the way.

How do people know how to improve if I don’t tell them?

It’s my job to ensure that people meet my high standards.

People want to please the boss. I use it as a carrot that’s out there in front of everyone. So far, no one has caught up to it.

In isolation, there’s just a bit of truth in every statement (OK, the bit might be really small in a few of those!), but what’s missing is an understanding of the human cost (energy, inspiration, environment) from a never ending slow-drip of negativity. A more balanced approach that acknowledges beauty where appropriate and offers encouragement and criticism will in my experience, produce far greater results.

5 Ideas for Achieving Better Balance in Your Feedback:

1. Know thyself. Many of the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity (thanks, Spiro Agnew) aren’t as semi self-aware as those who commented above. In case you dont’ know which side of the ledger you come down on…positive or negative, run a little experiment for a few days and keep a tally of how many criticisms you offer versus how many times you offer praise during a day.  If the balance is consistently skewed towards the negative, you have work to do.

2. Know thyself, part 2. Give your employees a chance to share their thoughts on your feedback skills and habits.  While the results of an anonymous survey can be skewed when groups fear the boss, if you are genuine in your pursuit of feedback on your own performance, you will likely gain some frank and useful input.

3. Advance your philosophy in pursuit of better performance (yours and theirs). You’re not completely wrong in your thoughts on constructive criticism. However, great coaches and great managers encourage the development of strengths and carefully help people navigate the weaknesses. They don’t bludgeon them into high performance with all that’s wrong with their work. There’s a needed balance of positive support and constructive criticism.

4. Don’t change your style suddenly and starting handing out gratuitous praise…support it with clear examples. You know when people are doing good work. Find time on occasion to acknowledge the work and share very clear and specific reasons about what’s good with the work. Your clearly defined positive feedback reinforces what people did right. Your goal is to get them to do that consistently.

5. Beware feedback sandwiches of all types. Sandwiching your feedback is a bad habit where managers who are uncomfortable offering constructive input surround the negative issue with big pieces of positive praise.  (For more on this odious technique, see my post: Why I Hate the Sandwich Technique for Delivering Feedback. In the case of our Negative Motivator here, beware Reverse Sandwiching…hiding the praise between two big pieces of your moldy negative comments.  The praise will be overwhelmed by the negatives surrounding it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You can offer positive praise without being perceived as weak. Some “Negative Motivators” are concerned about losing their “tough” image, and they wrongly associate praise with weakness. I’ve worked for and around tough managers…those with high expectations and standards, who understood that positive praise was an important part of the success formula. While their minds might be drawn to the problems and the negatives they see in every image, they are emotionally intelligent enough to recognize that others both need and deserve positive support for their good work as well.

You don’t need to stock up on gold stars, but for top performance, you do need to learn to talk about and reward the positives on occasion. Just for today, start looking at the beauty in work and try and not preoccupy on the blemishes.  You might be surprised how people respond.


By |2016-10-22T17:11:38+00:00June 27th, 2011|Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|3 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Beyond Horizons July 4, 2011 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    I do agree with the fact that positive feedback and appreciation makes a big difference to office morale and productivity.
    But I also think that some amount of ‘nitpicking’ is necessary. You need to point out flaws and mistakes before things get out of hand. But what makes a difference is the way you put it across.
    If you go in with the mindset of ‘critiquing’ something, you are bound to end up sounding negative. Instead, think about it as trying to ‘improve’ something; it’ll make your inputs sound more like suggestions rather than critiques.

    – Sindoora (http://www.beyondhorizons.in)

  2. Toby Marshall July 17, 2011 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    Great article – I definitely agree that too many people who find themselves in leadership roles think the way to gain respect is by creating a fearful environment. This is detrimental to productivity and inevitably results in low morale.

    I think it’s also important for good leaders to look at their team as individuals rather than one big lump. All people have different goals and personality types – so they require different leadership approaches to inspire their best performance.

    Knowing thyself is fundamentally important – and after you’ve got to know yourself, it’s time to turn your eyes on the team. The HUMM-Wadsworth model, for example, provides a good outline of some basic personality types and being able to identify where your team members fall in that range will help you understand how best to approach them, so that your feedback is taken on board.

    If you’re interested, here’s a closer look at personality types and leadership:

  3. […] recent blog post at Artpetty.com – Do you see beauty or blemishes? – offers a great perspective on Permanent Frown-Faces or, as he calls them, “Negative […]

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