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The Cardinal Sin That Prevents Managers from Being Safety Leaders

Terry E. McSween, Quality Safety Edge

Recently, I have seen more clearly than ever, the biggest error made by managers that often prevents them from being good leaders. Truly, I think it is an issue that affects much more than just business, but rather is one of the most significant issues in all relationships: our families, our schools, and all institutions that come to mind.

What do I consider the biggest error made by many managers? A good many of you have probably guessed, based on your own experience. It is really very simple: managers are often overly critical of almost everything done by their associates. Here in Texas we have an old saying related to the issue, “Any fool can burn down a barn, but it takes skill to build one.”

I use to think that the biggest issue was frequency, or simply too much criticism or corrective feedback relative to positive conversations and feedback. Many people do get hooked on the immediate positive consequences of using criticism or corrective feedback. While you can do too much of either, in my view, overuse of criticism prevents many people from developing effective relationships, and even has the power to destroy loving relationships.

What’s the difference between criticism and corrective feedback? In my view, the difference is that criticism is strictly a description or complaint about what the other person is doing (or has done) wrong, without specifying what needs to be done differently.  While too much criticism can certainly be a problem, I’ve recently come to believe that a more serious problem is the use of criticism without what some have called feed forward – a term I find awkward but descriptive of what is present in corrective feedback and missing from what I would consider criticism.  Criticism lacks feed forward, an element that is present in corrective feedback. This is the prime distinction between criticism and corrective feedback. 

In doing my own work I learned the phrase, “Complaint with request for change.” This is a great phrase!  One of our challenges over the years has been getting people to pinpoint behavior, that is, to describe the behavior in a way someone else could observe it reliably. In many ways, this phrase, “Complaint with request for change,” almost avoids the need to teach people to be objective in describing behavior (i.e., pinpointing). When you start thinking about what you want someone to do instead, it almost forces you to think clearly about what they are doing that bothers you, and what they could do differently.

Of course, it takes a little more than that. The “complaint” part of the phrase really has two components. The first component is a description of what the person did, and the second component describes the impact of that behavior or how it creates a problem—all very similar to the feedback model we use in Values-Based Safety (VBS®). Done well, that request for change, or discussion of what might be done differently, can actually help build the relationship as well as the desired behavior.

Dale Carnegie talked extensively about the issue of criticism in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People—a classic on human relationships. In this book he made a statement that, I think, succinctly supports my point:

Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain and most fools do. —Dale Carnegie