Making Destructive Comments (Habit Series #4)

Think back on your recent interactions. If I asked you how many times you made destructive comments towards the people you work with, how would you answer? “Destructive? No way. I’m a nice person. And when I do give feedback, it’s never destructive.” What about if I asked you how many times you talked negatively about someone when he or she wasn’t present? “Well sure, but everyone does that. It’s part of our culture.”

The topic we are approaching here is a silent leadership killer. Whose leadership, you ask? Yours, your boss’s, your subordinates’. Destructive comments slip into an organization, infect the culture, manifest as other problems, and kill the trust that leaders worked so hard to build.

Today, you’ll be guilty of making comments that can destroy your organization, and you likely don’t even know it.

Command Sgt. Maj. Alan D. Bjerke, command sergeant major of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, speaks to Canadian Soldiers during practice for a live fire event during Cooperative Spirit 2008 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center near Hohenfels, Germany. Link to photo.

Leadership Through a Megaphone

We are on #4 of a series covering Marshall Goldsmith’s “Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top,” published in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. He compiled this list from tens of thousands of employee surveys and leader interviews over his 30 year consulting career. If your organization has a problem, the root cause is likely on this list. And Making Destructive Comments is probably one of those root problems.

Let me preface the meat of this post with this point to consider: Your voice as a leader is 1,000 times louder to your followers than any other voice they hear. As such, the impact of all your actions, both positive and negative, is amplified. Your casual words carry emotional permanency with effects that will ripple through the team and throughout their lives.

What’s So Destructive?

Goldsmith says, “Destructive comments are the cutting sarcastic remarks we spew out daily, with or without intention, that serve no other purpose than to put people down, hurt them, or assert ourselves as their superiors. They are different from comments that add too much value – because they add nothing but pain.”

When would that happen in a military leader’s day?

“Hey LT, nice job on the qualification range.” (said with a smirk) 
“Is that all the push-ups you can do?”
“Who the heck made these slides?”
“Didn’t you see the sign outside my door that says I’m the First Sergeant?”
“It’s Sergeant Jones’ turn now. Remember the last time he screwed this up?”
“Ah, the promotion list is out. How did THAT GUY make it?”

I’ve heard destructive comments and unsupportive attitudes throughout my career. It’s easy to shell them out on others because the military has clear standards of performance. If someone is falling short, criticism is justified, right? This type of engagement is also pervasive because we place a high premium on authority and experience. Military leaders habitually, unknowingly, and often destructively over-communicate the power of their position.

What’s more, according to Goldsmith, this area of leadership has “the second lowest correlation of how we see ourselves and how others see us. In other words, we don’t think we make destructive comments, but the people who know us disagree.”

Destructive Comments in Person

Most often, I’ve seen leaders make destructive comments when they become comfortable with their authority. Rarely does anyone walk into a new job and start criticizing people. No, they put on their best leadership behaviors in the beginning, then as they settle in and figure things out, the ego inflates and they get complacent. Their speech becomes flippant and emotional, rather than supportive and deliberate. Followers engage the leader looking for inspiration and encouragement but instead get ego-fueled criticism.

And unless that leader has opened the door for personal feedback, or as Michael Hyatt puts it, “created an environment that is open to dissent,” the leader won’t even know he’s changed. The process will continue until followers are personally offended and disillusioned.

Destructive Comments About Others

Hopefully, most of us have the emotional intelligence to recognize when we’ve personally offended someone, but the real destroyer of teams is gossip.

All of us will be guilty of gossip today. It has infected our culture so pervasively that we weave it into dialogue without hesitation, often making gossip the core element of many conversations at the expense of productive, positive engagement. And thanks to social media, we can practice digital gossip all day long.

Let Dave Ramsey’s definition of gossip sink in,

“Gossip is when a negative is discussed
with anyone who can’t fix the problem.”

It’s so important that I’ll write it again, “Gossip is when a negative is discussed with anyone who can’t fix the problem.” Here again, roll tape on your recent conversations and note the level of gossip.

Dave Ramsey lays it out in an EntreLeadership Podcast episode on the subject. He says that gossip is destructive because it broadcasts the organization’s incompetence without a means to remedy the problem.

When the employee in sales gossips to the front office receptionist that the IT department can’t get the computer network straight, he’s slamming the IT department for being incompetent AND the company’s management for not hiring the right IT people in the first place. The receptionist can’t solve either of those problems and now thinks she works for a broken company, in addition to losing ten valuable minutes of her day.

“Gossip is when a negative is discussed with anyone who can’t fix the problem.”

This happens in the military all the time when we talk about underperforming staff sections, people who get jobs they probably shouldn’t have, and leaders who seem out of touch with their people. We happily criticize them to our sphere of influence but don’t have the courage to give direct, constructive feedback that might actually lift their performance.

Finally, gossip only happens because we conveniently overlook the fact that we do not have the perspective of those we are disparaging. Even if we’ve served in that job before, we can’t know the particular challenges that person is facing. Gossiping about their performance is hollow, unfounded, and damaging.

Protect Your Culture

In fighting to eliminate gossip and build a culture of supportive engagement, I offer two suggestions.

First, take Marshall Goldsmith’s advice. When speaking of others, justify your comments not by asking, “Is it true?” but by instead asking, “Is it worth it?” Yes, that leader may be toxic and incompetent, but will it fix the problem or lift the team by talking bad about him?

Secondly, when you have the opportunity to shape an organization, eradicate gossip wherever it appears. Here’s Dave Ramsey’s policy on gossip:

Once I will warn you, and then I will fire you. I have a zero tolerance plus one policy for gossip. I will teach you once…and then I will fire you. Everybody agrees gossip is bad…even the gossips. Gossip is degrading and will destroy an organization. We maintain a culture in which negatives are handed up and positives are handed down.”

Set expectations in your formation that gossip is not acceptable and respond with corrective action, if necessary. Shape the culture by channeling negatives up the chain of command, to the people who can actually fix them. Conversely, transmit positives across and down the chain of command, to the hard-working troops making things happen.

Next time, we’ll cover Habit #5, “Starting with NO, BUT, and HOWEVER,” and discuss how leaders can avoid broadcasting to their teams that, “I’m right and you’re wrong!”

Questions for Leaders

  • How would you begin to assess what impact your words have had on your team recently?
  • Do your words unite and inspire?…or do they degrade and divide?
  • In what ways could you take a more active role in protecting your organization’s culture?

For more insight from Marshall Goldsmith, check out the resources below.

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You can access Marshall Goldsmith’s resources and content at the following links:Winning

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