“Is ours a culture of coaching or of critiquing?” That was the question I overheard in a conversation at one of my satellite offices (i.e. a coffee shop). It’s a great question—one that invites critical thinking about the work culture and leadership. I cannot answer the question for these two gentlemen; I do not know them or their work culture. The issue, though, challenged me to think about the differences between coaching and critiquing and when each is effective, or not.
First let’s identify the hallmark characteristics of coaching and critiquing.
Coaching is intended to support an individual; it is generally encouraging; it focuses on identifying and building one’s strengths; it usually involves a longer term relationship; it is often free form and driven by the one being coached; it can be very open-ended.
Critiquing includes a mixture of positive and negative feedback (not necessarily a balanced mixture); the subject is usually technical skills; the focus is short term; a relationship may or may not exist; the foundation of the critique is often rules and standards-based; some form of objective criteria is often used.
Obviously, that’s not an exhaustive list and some will disagree with various points. In summary, though, coaching is about discovering and building a person’s strengths whereas critiquing is about providing feedback on something that has happened or is happening.
Organizations need BOTH coaching and critiquing. However, many organizations focus too much on critiquing and not enough on coaching. When all forms of feedback in an organization are considered, the balance of coaching to critiquing is probably 10/90. It should be much closer to 40/60 or, dare I say, 60/40.
How can you tell if your organization has too much critiquing, and too little coaching? Look around and ask whether people are afraid to get feedback. Or, even if they are not afraid to get feedback, do they find the feedback helpful? Fear of feedback or unhelpful feedback is often critiquing. Cultures where feedback is welcomed and it is helpful are often coaching cultures. Also, take a look at the basis of performance reviews. Are a set of criteria used as a standard for measurement? That’s critiquing. Are performance reviews tied to the use and development of individual strengths and expression of strengths on the job? That’s coaching. Are people expected to follow the rules, stay out of trouble, and just get the job done? (Critiquing culture.) Or, do people feel they have an environment in which to develop their skills? (Coaching culture.)
Leaders drive the tone and type of organizational culture. Their values and leadership style determines the use and balance of coaching and critiquing in the organization. Leaders that drive a coaching culture are probably people oriented. They focus on understanding people, their dreams and motivation, their God-given strengths, and how to synthesize all these factors into something that helps the employees and the organization achieve amazing goals. On the other hand, leaders that drive a critiquing culture are probably bottom-line results oriented. They focus on the numbers of the organization, various metrics and specifications, and how to coordinate resources for better results.
Neither one of the above approaches is inherently good or bad. They are different. They have different purposes and different outcomes. They require different kinds of leaders and different kinds of followers. Also, this is not an either or situation. The ideal situation is an appropriate balance of coaching and critiquing according to the needs of the situation. What is “appropriate”? That depend on the type of organization, its mission, and its values.
One more thought, and for some readers this may be the most important thought: As a leader, it is imperative that you understand the personality and emotional intelligence of your followers when delivering coaching or critiquing. In general, the more confident the follower is in his abilities and his identity, the more able he is to accept critiquing. However, this does NOT reduce the need for coaching. Another factor that influences the followers ability to receive critiquing is his personal commitment and interest in the work. High commitment and interest also increase the capacity for critiquing. HOWEVER, there are limits to this. Critiquing is not motivating. While your critique is intended to help someone, think of critiquing as taking withdrawals from a bank account. The more you critique, no matter the condition of the follower, the lower the balance in that bank account. Followers who are confident, emotionally healthy, and have high interest in the work, start with a high “bank balance,” but eventually, that account will be at a zero or negative balance. That’s when things start to get ugly. (By the way, would it surprise you that coaching has a tendency to increase the bank balance?)
It’s your turn. I would like to hear your stories and comments about coaching and critiquing in previous or current work settings. What has worked? What has been an epic failure? Why?