Don’t Be a Perpetual Critic

Critical thinking skills are an important part of being an effective leader.  A good leader has to be able to look at processes and strategies, and then use logic and reason to identify the good and bad in a situation, challenge conventional thinking, and identify better ways to execute and get desired results.  You can’t be a good leader without having thinking critically.

Like any other trait, when it becomes a strength it can also be a liability or weakness.  Instead of constructively sharing ideas with other people, some leaders become “perpetual critics,” finding fault with any idea not their own.  They spotlight the negative in every operation or project.  Pretty soon, their critical thinking skills turn into cynicism and antagonism as they become very verbal about what is wrong with company leadership, the new business strategy, the way a project was executed, etc.  They spend time at the coffee pot or in e-mail exchanges giving push-back and espousing an “everyone is dumb but me” philosophy and saying things like, “If I were in charge of this project, I would focus on this or that,” or cynically asking “Why did you do it this?”  It can become so bad that people are afraid of approaching these critics for fear of getting an earful of negativity on any idea.

The speed of change is challenging Corporate America, and organizations have to adapt or they won’t survive.  This type of environment can add fuel to the fire for perpetual critics.

The most disappointing issue with perpetual critics is that they are usually smart and capable problem solvers, and as such, high potential leaders.  Their mistake is in using their intelligence and critical thinking skills toward the wrong objectives.  In some cases, the smarter you are, the more susceptible you are to becoming one.  Instead of working well with other people to hone in on a good business strategy or solve a tough problem, perpetual critics invest their energy finding fault with the organization.  Over time, this type of cynicism becomes habitual and a dark cloud follows the critics everywhere they go in an organization, eventually creating an unwanted repuation.  After all, nobody enjoys a critic who is always bringing out the gloom and doom in the organization.

Few perpetual critics are aware of this weakness in themselves and, therefore, they are unaware of the need to improve.  Other people (including bosses) avoid confronting perpetual critics because they are usually so defensive (critics are much better at giving criticism than receiving it).  The tell-tale sign for a perpetual critic is in being passed up for a leadership promotion.  Any good organization will keep the perpetual critic away from a position where he/she can directly influence other people.  After all, perpetual critics are most dangerous to an organization when they mass in numbers.  Instead of allowing them to move towards positions of greater influence, perpetual critics are usually stove-piped into specialist type roles where their attitudes won’t poison others in the organization.

How do you keep critical thinking skills in check so you don’t become a perpetual critic?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Be honest with yourself. Are you using your critical thinking skills constructively, or are you a perpetual critic? What type of attitude do you keep during the day when things go wrong?  Do you fly off the handle and focus on the negatives?  How many of your sentences begin with, “If I were in charge…?” Or something like that.  How often do you think this way?  Like any weakness, fixing it starts with being honest with yourself.
  2. Be a good listener. While you may be smart and capable, remember, there are a lot of smart people out there with good ideas. Listen to others around you, solicit a variety of opinions, and welcome suggestions.  When you approach your work in this collaborative manner, people will see your critical thinking skills in a positive way.
  3. Don’t be an egomaniac. There will be days when you feel surrounded by incompetence. All organizations are composed of people, and people make mistakes and commit an array of organizational blunders.  Regardless, you can’t approach work with an “I am smarter and better than anyone else” mentality.  It’s virtually always a career killer.
  4. Be constructive. Problems abound in any organization. Instead of expending energy on the cause of problems, focus your time on how to solve them.  Don’t be judgmental towards everything that is happening around you.  Rather, be a light inspiring others around you in dealing with the problems.  Doing so will move your organization forward (as well as your career).
  5. Keep a good attitude. When you combine great critical thinking skills with a good attitude, it is always an asset to you and your organization. Every challenging problem is an opportunity for you to combine critical thinking with a positive attitude to bring about change.

Joel