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Was soll an Kritik

6 June 2023


“That wasn’t meant personally,” says the colleague who has just expressed a criticism. In management, we thrive on critical opinions being freely voiced. Indeed, most managers almost long to see a culture of criticism, or at least of debate, which is lacking in many organizations. Why is it that so few of them have such a culture?

Quite simply, because no criticism worthy of being described as such is going to be without a personal element.

Let’s be frank: all criticism affects the person on the receiving end, whether they claim to have a thick skin or not. And yet criticism is necessary, because it is the only way that leads to improvement, opens up new horizons and provides new insights. However, as all criticism generates feelings of shame and/or guilt – two primary emotions that are inherent in all of us – it is frowned upon in so-called “cuddle cultures”. People do not wish to upset their colleagues; they want to spare them from these two emotions emanating from the dark side of power.


This kind of restraint comes at a high price: the majority of management teams I have contact with do not have the necessary critical faculties, with the result that their overall performance falls below standard. The reticence is too great, and the value of camaraderie is overstimated. It takes courage to express what you see and what you think could be improved.


Image: AdobeStock Nuthawut

This is the reason why we find criticism per se so difficult. Especially in an environment that is simply not accustomed to it. At the end of the day, it’s not surprising, because if someone takes such a bold step despite their reservations, they are likely to be shunned in the canteen and talked about in the corridors after the meeting. Why would that person even think of sticking his nose into matters that are none of his business?


Senior management claim to be all in favor of staff speaking their mind and repeatedly emphasize that they want to hear criticism and are open to everything. In real life, however, when opinions are actually voiced on an important topic that do not correspond to their own ideas, they frequently brush them aside by playing the hierarchy card. Yet we are the ones who demand that our employees criticize more. It is a paradoxical behavior that can be found in many companies.

In addition to courage, it takes open-mindedness to gain insights from critical statements, in line with the principle that the other person may be right after all.

So, it’s not enough to call for criticism; you have to reward the critic’s courage by being open-minded. Is that easy? No, because at that very moment you will feel the emotions of shame or guilt that come creeping up on you after receiving relevant criticism.


Let’s not fool ourselves: when dealing with criticism, it is all about training our character and our powers of observation. If someone, acting with the best of intentions, tells us that our proposal is no good or that our approach is not particularly well thought out, this is a challenge to our mental strength. We then need to make use of the small moment between the emergence of negative feelings and our reaction, and to avoid falling into the all too human and typical patterns of behavior – justifying why we came up with this idea, attempting to explain why the critic is not right or looking for someone else to blame.

At this moment, it is important to confront our own feelings of shame or guilt, to welcome them, put a smile on our face and meet the critic with an interested and open mind. As it happens, this is a behavioral response that none of us was born with. It takes training – quite difficult training, in fact – to reach a certain level of maturity in this respect. But we can only demand this from our employees if we are open not only to sincere criticism but also to the person expressing it.

Matthias Kolbusa

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