Four Ways Leaders Can Temper and Overly Critical Approach

Oct 14, 2020

Spending an enormous amount of time out of the office over the past several months has given many people the opportunity to do some thinking. For some leaders, that reflection may result in excessive analysis of their team members or assignments to the point of focusing on the negative.

These days “nagging” employees about their work probably says more about a leader’s need for more control during these unpredictable times than it says about the actual work itself. Leaders are feeling a lack of control, which manifests as overly critical feedback. They may also be feeling insecure about adding value and turning out the highest level of deliverables. Right now, many leaders are in the same boat, each trying to navigate this uncertain time period.

In order to lead more completely, though, leaders need to be aware of this context and examine their actions and motivations closely. By combining deep analysis with empathy, they can find ways to temper their excessive criticism.


Be Honest About Current Feelings

Before a leader responds to a less-than-favorable situation, they should take stock of their feelings about it. Self-aware leaders are better able to respond thoughtfully (rather than simply react immediately). To understand their current state of mind, they should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do I have any particular biases about the person who is sharing this information?
  • Am I able to listen to the entire message without jumping in with my ideas? Is my rush to comment affecting this interaction?
  • How do I feel right now? (Angry? Frustrated? Defensive? Open-minded?)
  • Would it be better to have this conversation at a later date when I am in a different state of mind?

Analyze, Don’t Criticize

Leaders who want to avoid being overly critical should stick to facts and observations and avoid negative belittling. When faced with a team member or colleague who holds a different point of view, leaders should try to address the divide by backing up their own opinions with specific data. Similarly, presenting descriptive, detailed suggestions – and steering clear of nebulous language – can help a leader ensure a more positive reception of their analysis.


Use Respectful Words and Body Language

Excessive criticism often involves attacking others with disrespect. Even in disagreement, leaders should be respectful of differences and mindful of how others perceive their words and body language. Nonverbal communication can speak louder than actual words, particularly if the speaker is seen as being too critical. Some simple strategies can help leaders maintain a respectful approach:

  • Consider the positives before sharing the negatives. (Leaders don’t need to sugarcoat the truth. They just need to look at all sides of a situation.)
  • Rather than be “judgy” and jump to conclusions, leaders should use words that honor the other person’s intentions.
  • Smile and strive to be approachable. Even when offering negative feedback, leaders want others to listen with the openness that results from a personal connection.
  • Never point fingers (literally) at someone. That hand gesture is aggressive and unfriendly, and often reminds adults of being reprimanded by their parents or teachers.

Include Empathy and Kindness

When employees sense that their leaders are genuinely invested in how they may be feeling, those leaders will be able to share honest feedback successfully. Leaders who get in the habit of trying to look at situations through the perspectives of others will create meaningful connections with them. As these respectful relationships flourish, the need for overly critical feedback diminishes. The result will be a valuable conversation build on mutual trust, respect, and kindness.

Terri Klaas is a highly sought-after leadership skills facilitator, trainer, coach, and speaker who helps organizations develop influential leaders and retain their experienced talent. She can be reached at

Written by: Terri Klass

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