How to avoid the “manager as critic” trap

Oct 08, 2019 |Posted by Jared Simmons | Coaching

It’s common for people to misinterpret their role as manager as that of a critic–to judge their team members’ way of working. Management positions are, ultimately, about managing resources. With that in mind, critiquing someone’s work or approach must take a back seat to helping them add more value for the organization. Sometimes that means letting them take an approach that you wouldn’t take.

“Critics have their purposes, and they’re supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did.” –Duke Ellington

As managers, it’s important that we find a way to leave room for uniqueness and creativity in how someone delivers against your expected outcomes. It’s very easy to allow experience and expertise to cut us off from taking in new approaches and possibilities. People in a position of influence over the day-to-day actions of someone else have to ensure that critiquing the work doesn’t unconsciously become more important than improving it. This requires a level of humility and curiosity that is difficult to maintain as successful career progression seemingly validates your way of doing things.

Three ways to avoid “manager as critic” behavior

Stay in “learning mode” in other aspects of your life. Take piano lessons, an art class, a cooking class–anything that takes you out of your area of expertise and authority. This will help you maintain empathy for those on your team who are in “learning mode” at work. It can also give you helpful analogies and metaphors for an outcome-focused discussion.

Ask questions first. Before jumping in to “correct” a behavior or statement from an employee, ask at least three questions about the situation. The classic “Who/What/Where/When/How” starters can help you get started. Don’t, under any circumstances, ask someone “Why” they did or said something. It can put the other person on the defensive–particularly coming from an authority figure.

Speak with a focus on outcomes, not experience or authority. Avoid starting sentences with, “When I was at XYZ company…,” or “When I had your job…,” etc. These phrases tie your insights to your past experience, not their current one. Statements like, “If I were you…” or “Here’s how we do it on this team…” are equally problematic. They can force the employee to choose between their approach and compliance with authority. Beginning with the outcome–what you expected versus what actually occurred–is the best approach. It allows you both to focus on doing what’s best for the organization.

“Manager as critic” is an easy mode to fall into–especially for new managers who want to make sure things get done “right.” After all, you were promoted or hired for what you’ve done in the past, so that must have been the “right” way. The reality is that you were hired as a manager for the outcomes you created–the value you returned to the organization. Your job is to help others deliver similar value, not necessarily take a similar approach.


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Jared Simmons

Jared is the founder of Outlast Consulting LLC, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations with strategy, process improvement, and professional development. He is an engineer by training with experience in market research, product development, innovation, management consulting, and strategic planning at P&G, McKinsey, and Coca-Cola.


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