Classic: The Super-Critic

Originally Published:  March 27, 2011

A large part of a manager’s daily work consists of dealing with problems, and an important part of that task includes figuring out what went wrong.  Digging into past failures can sensitize a manager to the many decisions that caused the issues to arise in the first place.  It is in this crucible of critical dissection armed with perfect hindsight that managers learn to become hypercritical.

Audiobook version of INCENTIVIZE.  Click the image to learn more.

Audiobook version of INCENTIVIZE.  Click the image to learn more.

I remember sitting in MBA Classes taught using the case method, and listening as student after student harshly criticized the actions of the managers portrayed in the case being studied.  We even once had Jack Welch visit the campus and some of the students felt free to criticize his management of GE to his face!  (Talk about arrogant overconfidence….)  For all the advantages of the case method as a tool of instruction, it does seem to set young budding managers along the path to becoming a Super-Critic.

The Super-Critic expects perfection and doesn't hesitate to find flaws with everything going on around him.  He criticizes how things were done even if the outcome was good, the idea being that if he had only been available to apply his piercing insight to the situation, things would have turned out even better.

Some Super-Critics learn to toss out the occasional compliment, but these are typically given only on the most trivial of matters (nice shirt, now on to my critique of your work!). A few Super-Critics learn to compliment in public and criticize in private, but while they seem to exert a high level of control over their criticisms, the critique still flows downhill to its intended target – just through a proxy rather than directly.

The world of the Super-Critic is one of imperfection to be pointed out as a result of her superior intellect.  It is a world of sneering at any job no matter how well done, as it undoubtedly should have been better done.

The impact on people in the organization is fairly predictable, avoidance being one of the principle reactions.  Less contact represents less exposure to the Super-Critic's caustic, ego-toppling manner.  Tougher employees develop protections – a kind of emotional armor – and use them to shrug off the harshest of critical evaluations.  Others lose all initiative, realizing that any attempt to go beyond strictly following the manager’s lead invites biting disparagement.

When the Super-Critic occupies a position high in management, the employee who hears condemnation must always wonder about the ultimate source – often the evaluation emanates from the Super-Critic himself, but sometimes it comes from imitators place all along the management ladder.  Highly placed Super-Critics inspire other to emulate their methods.  Often the lead Super-Critic will actually express admiration of the quick, piercing criticism offered by the most aggressive of subordinates.  In such an environment, one often hears employees complain thatnothing is ever good enough,” or “the absence of criticism is the only compliment around here.”

This is the cover of my latest novel, EMPOWERED.  Click on the image for more information.

This is the cover of my latest novel, EMPOWERED.  Click on the image for more information.

The Super-Critic drives talent out of the organization and breaking the drive to achieve in those who remain.  When negative critique is all that is offered – regardless of effort or result – most remaining employees reduce their efforts to the minimum necessary to survive.  They certainly don’t expose themselves to unnecessary risks when the result is almost certain to be harsh second-guessing.

The Super-Critic CEO ultimately fails when the organization can’t perform up to expectations.  Unfortunately, Boards are not equipped to discover and remove the Super-Critic solely based of his caustic effect on the people.  Instead, Boards normally need to see the impact of larger scale problems resulting from a loss of talent from the organization.  In some companies this can becomes evident quickly.  In organizations with strong a franchise and entrenched market positions, it can take a very long time, and might never be evident in the midst of the daily impact of dozens other factors that influence results.  Under such circumstances, the Super-Critic is there to stay for a long haul.

The employee subjected to the Super-Critic, the best defense is to leave the company or at least the Super-Critic’s sphere of influence.  If you must stay, avoidance and unflinching following of the Super-Critic’s direction may make the job tolerable – at least for a time.

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To the right is the cover for INCENTIVIZE.  This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.