Career advice: If you're a manager who is all heart and little backbone, you really do need to acquire the strength to challenge the people around you.

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Q: I know that to be an effective leader I need to be able to criticize people’s performance and help them improve. The problem is, I am really uncomfortable with that. How can I get a little tougher?

A: Start by reframing the situation. Criticizing sounds harsh; how does it feel if you think about it as identifying opportunities for improvement and mentoring them as a route to improvement?

Take a step even further back to define your vision of a great leader. List the behaviors and characteristics that go with leadership, perhaps drawing on examples (positive and negative) from your past. Thinking about leadership examples from unrelated fields, even movies and books, can help you develop your exemplar. And then think about the reasons these characteristics are appealing to you.

Spend some time reflecting on yourself, your core nature and your greatest strengths. Know how you will inspire! Know the ways you’ll enable excellence. And, as part of this, know how you can provide support to help your team members improve.

Also consider what holds you back. If it’s hard to give “negative” feedback, what are you afraid of? One of my favorite books when training to be a coach was “Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders With Their Challenges” by Mary Beth O’Neill. I mention this because I was all heart and little backbone; if that’s your situation, I know from experience that you really do need to acquire the strength to challenge the people around you.

Think of it this way. If you don’t give people the feedback they need to address possible blind spots, you’re holding them back. You’re also insulting them by treating them as too weak to hear your input. You would not want to be treated that way and have probably benefited from honest feedback in your past.

So, on to ways to change your behavior. It may be as simple as using a scripted framework. “I” messages are extremely helpful. For example, “I have noticed that you’re abrupt when talking to your co-workers. This has caused others to be stressed and unhappy at work. I am asking you to be more patient when interacting with the team.” Notice this has three elements: personal observation of a problem behavior, the effect of that behavior and your expectation. Then ask for their thoughts and encourage dialogue about solutions.

There also needs to be known consequences. If team members are not doing quality work, define a road map for improvement with milestones that need to be met, and that not reaching these milestones could lead to job change, demotion or termination if the issues are severe.

Remember that being a leader is not just about critiques. Balance being both exacting and nurturing because if your team doesn’t think you care, the drive to excellent tactical performance will fall flat. Also keep in mind that a change in leadership style can be confusing, so be transparent with your team, perhaps even mentioning that you’re trying to grow and improve as a leader, so they may see some changes. Your demonstration of trust will help them be open to growth, too.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at