No to Sensitive Leaders

Øyvind Kvalnes

Leaders need to prove that they tolerate criticism and do not go into a deadlock when they face objections.

Lately, I have met shop stewards from various sectors for talks on the climate of expression at work. I have been curious about what they see as challenges in conversations with leaders and their members. A recurring pattern is that the shop stewards experience meeting hairy leaders. A shop steward tells:

When the leader takes the criticism personally

“The leader presented his strategic plan. This is how he thought we should invest and prioritize in the future. What do we think about this? I took the floor and pointed out that the plan had good sides, but seemed unrealistic in terms of staffing. It would take longer to recruit the right people. From earlier we knew that such things are demanding. I said this in a calm and restrained voice. Still, I could see that the leader took my words harshly. He did not answer, but became elated and breathless, before asking if there were more who had something they wanted to say. It was not, and he disappeared from the room.”

The leader has put a lot of work into the strategic plan and seems to take the criticism that comes very personally, even though it is factually and soberly presented. The shop steward linked this to a weak understanding of roles.

 - When I present counter-perceptions to my manager, it is in my role as a shop steward. It is in my role to provide constructive resistance. I address the person whose role it is to be the leader of our unit. Then it seems that this person takes the feedback very personally. I am looking for dialogue with my leader, but unfortunately, often end up in an unpleasant clinch with the person behind the leadership role.

Porcelain leader

It is a significant handicap for an organization or department to have a sensitive leader. This conductor can be experienced as a porcelain conductor, a fragile type that goes to pieces if there is more adversity. A sensitive leader can also be one who responds with sarcasm, anger, and bitterness. Such leadership causes people to shut up. This initiates projects and plans that are half-finished and poorly thought out. They are not opposed to objective objections.

It is difficult to know how common it is with sensitive leaders. That the leader is hypersensitive and does not tolerate constructive counterplay can be a reality, but also a perception that shop stewards and others form on a failing basis. Maybe the leader is more robust than they think. In any case, it should be thought-provoking for managers that employees are responsible for how they deal with criticism. An important self-reflection for leaders can be about what their normal reaction pattern is when someone disagrees with them and has objections to their ideas and suggestions. What do I look like when someone uses their voice to criticize my suggestions? What kind of facial expressions do I put up then? What are my habits for responding to objections to my own ideas?

How to accept criticism?

The first time you are the leader of an organization or department, some ideas about what you stand for and what values ​​you live by will form. This is the time to demonstrate an ability to accept criticism in constructive ways. If an employee or shop steward has been brave and expressed disagreement with something the manager has said, then everyone's eyes will be on the manager. What happens next now? Is there a smile or a touch of sarcasm, a welcoming remark, or an insult? Does the leader withdraw without answering, or is he able to wing it, positively?

The ability to accept criticism and counter-perceptions can be trained. In some educations, this is part of the program. The students present ideas and justifications and must respond to objections from the audience. For most people, this is nerve-wracking at first. It is impossible to know in advance what comes from counter-perceptions, whether they are mild or sharp. This uncertainty can create anxiety and restlessness. Then it is possible to get used to standing there and inviting criticism. For a leader, this is a necessary core competence. You need to be able to listen to criticisms and counter-perceptions without going into a deadlock. And for someone to take your word for it when you claim to have this ability, you have to prove it up to several times.


This article was first published at DN.no 05.05.20.

Published 8. January 2021

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