The Leader as Critic is one of the most toxic, idea-crushing characters you’ll ever find in the workplace. This individual mistakenly assumes that title confers a License to Kill (perceived bad ideas) and he/she takes pride in shooting down ideas to protect people and teams from themselves.

Every time I offer an idea, she laughs and offers, “That will never work,” and that’s the end of the conversation.

Chances are you’ve seen this character in action, aggressively seeking out even the faintest whisper of a thought and pouncing on it with pride to show the world why it won’t fly.

Nothing changes here, because he refuses to consider new ideas.

A good number of these Lead(er) Critics don’t recognize this tendency in themselves. In art and architecture, some people focus on the objects and others focus on the gaps between the objects. At work, the Lead(er) Critic isn’t looking for “What’s Right” in the idea, he is looking at the gaps with trained eyes and finding fault.

The company wants us to innovate, but we can’t even offer suggestions without feeling like we’ve crossed over an invisible boundary where injustice is swift and punishment harsh.    

Are You the Lead(er) Critic? 

Run a Test…Shut Your Mouth.  Starting today, every time someone offers an idea to solve a problem or make an improvement, immediately clamp your mouth shut and resist the urge to offer your comments.

Questions only, please. If you must talk, force yourself to ask clarifying questions in response to an idea.

Measure thyself. Keep track of how many times you encourage people to follow their ideas every week. If your journal page is empty after a week, you might just be the critic.

Do the ideas come with the problems? Pay attention to whether people approach you regularly with problems AND suggestions. If they show up with just the problem, you might be the critic.

Meetings more productive without you? Skip a few brainstorming meetings but ask for feedback and output. If the lists are suddenly longer and more creative, it’s possible that you might just be the critic.

The Eyes Have It. Ask people whether they feel comfortable proposing new ideas. If a look of fear crosses their face or, if their eyes go wide, you might just be the critic.

Six Ideas to Help You Survive Working for a Critic:

1. Recognition is the first step. In this case, recognize that Guile and Manipulation are your friends here.

2. Always strive to build the unarguable argument. Always make your case for a new idea by linking it to the team’s or better yet, the Critic’s goals.

3. Give the Critic credit for the idea. “Your comments the other day made me realize that what you really want is… .” Heck yes,  it’s manipulative. I don’t care if you don’t!

4. Lead the witness. (Or should that be witless?) Involve the Critic in idea generation after the fact. “We really need your expertise here… .”

5. The frontal assault. Tackle it head-on. Provide constructive boss feedback if you dare. Use specific, recent examples and link the incident to the impact it has on the firm/team/individual. If this fails, resort to guile and manipulation.

6. Send a message. Print out this post and leave it on his/her desk chair. Circle the title.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The double Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, once offered (I paraphrase) that the best way to generate good ideas was to generate a lot of ideas. If you suspect you are the critic, it’s not too late to change your ways. Use the guidance above, step back let go and measure success based on promoting the development of ideas and new approaches.

If you are working for a Lead(er) Critic, try the high-road first with feedback. If that fails, it is your responsibility to outfox this character. It’s not pretty, it’s not elegant and it is just a bit manipulative, and it’s ever so right.

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About Art Petty:

Art Petty is a Leadership & Career Coach and Strategy Consultant, helping motivated professionals of all levels achieve their potential. In addition to working with highly motivated professionals, Art frequently works with project teams in pursuit of high performance. Art’s second book (an edited, annotated collection of the most popular leadership essays), Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development, was released at the end of September in 2011.

Contact Art via e-mail to discuss a coaching, workshop or speaking engagement.