leadership lane-assist

We continue our series I’m calling My Leadership Lane-Assist. In my most recent post, I wrote:

Accountability is not synonymous with blaming. Blaming looks for a scapegoat. Responsibility and consequences for failure are shoved downward to the lowest possible subordinate level. Accountability works in the opposite direction — upward. Leaders who are inclined to blame and scapegoat demonstrate their unwillingness to bear responsibility commensurate with their status. The higher your leadership position and status, the higher your level of accountability. As a senior leader, you may not be to blame, but you are responsible.

You would be mistaken, however, if you were to conclude I am suggesting you must not criticize the performance of your subordinates. Quite the contrary. Refer to My Leadership Lane-Assist Prompt #5.

As a leader, you are inevitably called upon to make judgments about the performance of those with whom you work. That includes responsibility to criticize. You are failing as a leader if you withhold or postpone warranted criticism. I believe, however, there is a vast difference — in both substance and effect — between mere blaming and offering constructive and corrective criticism.

So, what advice do I have to offer about criticism? I make no pretense that this advice originates with me but my experiences have validated these principles and led to the formation of internal leadership prompts relative to two essential aspects of effective criticism: timing and manner.



A young man I know well was appointed to a position of significant ministry leadership responsibility. Six months into his tenure in the new role, his superiors informed him that they would meet with him to conduct an initial 6-month performance review. For one thing — except in cases involving persistent failure to respond submissively and correctively, or of ruptured trust such that you need to signal dismissal is imminent — criticism should be communicated one-on-one, not by multiple inquisitors. But that is beside the point.

bullhornHere is the point. This two-on-one encounter was no performance review. It was an emotional ambush, in my judgment a most amateurish and destructive “gotcha” exercise. Although the supervisors did offer some affirmation that this young leader was performing his job well, that cursory affirmation was blunted when they literally opened a notebook from which they read to him a litany of observed failures and faults over the entire previous 6 months!

He sat utterly astonished to hear for the first time about perceived failures — some of them incredibly trivial and prejudicial — to which he had been oblivious. Had he been confronted at the moment of each incident perceptions might have been corrected and patterns avoided. Rather than improving performance and fostering better communication and compliance, whether by design or otherwise, the procedure had the effect of inflicting humiliation and damaging trust.


Not only is timing crucial relative to effective criticism, perhaps even more important is the medium by which criticism is communicated. This constitutes My Leadership Lane-Assist Prompt #9:


(Almost) never criticize in writing; (almost) always praise in writing.


There may be occasions when written communication of criticism is warranted, but I have consistently found that a first resort to written criticism rarely has the desired effect. Like nuclear waste, written criticism has a very long half-life.

Some years ago, one of my associates confessed to me that he was struggling with resentment toward a colleague who had written to him a scathing memorandum several years previously criticizing his actions in a particular matter. He told me that time after time, just when through fervent prayer and contrition the resentment seemed mercifully to have subsided, it would surface all the more intensely when he reached into his bottom drawer, withdrew, and read the memo once again. “Tear up the memo and throw it away!” I exclaimed. The criticism’s corrective and cautionary intent had long since been discharged, but its residue grew in poisonous effect because it had been conveyed in writing.

My observed and lived leadership experiences consistently prompt me that significant and substantive criticism should in most cases at least first be delivered verbally, privately, one-on-one. In some cases, written follow-up might be wise or necessary, especially when you need to document that criticism has been repeatedly extended and corrective action is required — or else substantial consequences will follow. But that written record should follow a timely, personal, and verbal conversation whenever possible.

great jobThe corollary is true. Praise rendered in writing is like fine wine: it becomes more pleasing and potent with age.

I keep a file in my desk drawer in which I place notes of affirmation and encouragement from people I most highly admire and respect — especially people I know I can trust to address not only praise but also criticism to me when warranted. Every once in a while in moments of discouragement bordering on despondency, I reach into my drawer and take a fresh sip of that nectar for the soul.

Criticism is a leader’s responsibility. Effective exercise of that responsibility involves immediacy in terms of timing. It also involves this principle in terms of medium.

Here’s my best advice on that subject:


(Almost) never criticize in writing; (almost) always praise in writing.


More Leadership Lane-Assist offerings are yet to come …

If you’ve missed any posts from my Leadership Lane-Assist series, you can find them in our 4ThoughtLeaders blog pages.  Or, if you’re just tuning in, you may want to start from the beginning of the series with my Leadership Lane-Assist introductory post.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


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