No more Mr. Nice Guy! Why criticism is important for your leadership.

As Paracelsus put it in 1583, “all things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing, not a poison.”

Did you know that a gram of salt per kilogram of body weight, so roughly 10 tablespoons of table salt, is deadly? Too much water can also kill you. Jennifer Strange took part in a water-drinking competition and drank eight liters in three hours. Her body’s salt levels collapsed, her brain swelled up, and she died five hours later. If you consume 80 cups of coffee, 85 bars of chocolate, or 2 (ground or whole) nutmegs in one sitting, you will most likely also meet your maker. Although homeopathy is now a disputed practice, Paracelsus was right. Whilst he wasn’t thinking about feelings or emotions when devising his thesis, his insight on things’ duplicity can also be applied here.

Poison at the workplace

We certainly all wish for a good atmosphere in the workplace, whether we’re working from home or having one-to-one meetings. It makes working easier and more fun. With good leadership and positive work culture, we’re more productive. As an employer, I’m happy when there’s a good atmosphere among my staff, and everyone’s happy to come to work. So, should we just be about peace, love, and harmony from now on? No, we shouldn’t, as it’s not worthwhile to constantly focus solely on establishing a good atmosphere.

Josef Forgas, from the University of New South Wales, and Alex Koch, from the University of Cologne, were able to show through years of experiments that a good atmosphere fosters creativity and sociability. Creatives should therefore stick to the motto that a good mood boosts creativity!

However, both researchers’ results were very different when examining participants’ analytical skills, which were more effective when the participants were unhappy or showed a slightly negative mood. Further tests showed that when in such a mood, participants recognized manipulations, mixed messages, and spurious correlations better. Probably that’s why we don’t always see accountants and controllers skipping merrily through the corridors because those who work in this field need to be good at detecting mistakes.

So, does good leadership and work culture mean we should give marketing a football table and knock accounting into shape every morning? Well, no. Although a football table might not be a bad idea. However, the above examples do show that there are two sides to every story. Certain substances are good for us in small doses but deadly if we have too much. The same goes for the workplace: having fun together is important in the right dose, but it’s not the ultimate solution for effective teamwork and performance.

Criticism is necessary and when used correctly, a tool for better communication. Criticism should be about the personal experience or point of view of the person giving it. It should be constructive and mustn’t be a judgment of the person it’s aimed at.

Here are my 5 tips to better leadership and criticism:

  • Criticism must always be specific and address a behavior or result
    You don’t help anyone with general critical statements, you merely expose yourself as a moaner or make it clear that you don’t have a lot of respect for the person.
  • Where possible, firstly mention what went well, what’s deserving of praise
    When employees feel attacked, they want to defend themselves, and when their stress level rises, it becomes difficult to think or react rationally or logically about what was said. It’s then unlikely that they’ll take anything away from the criticism.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes first
    For example, start the criticism with “I know that we didn’t have a lot of time and… however, I do need…”
  • No one is motivated by constant complaining
    Even if criticism at work is necessary to know what’s going wrong and keep improving. Use praise as a management tool as well. Praise for good work encourages better performance in the future – much more than criticism for bad work.
  • If you dish it out, you’ve got to be able to take it.
    As a manager, give your staff the possibility to criticize too – not you personally, but things that aren’t going well. Take their feedback seriously and show them that you also act on criticism.

Finding the right balance is key to managerial success. During our 2020 Business Breakfasts, we spoke about power and status in detail, as these are the two most important management tools which must be implemented and used correctly. Only then can motivational coaching and empowerment measures really take effect.

Empowerment is a process

Correctly implementing personnel management to lead employees to better results is a continuous process with multiple phases. You can only venture into the next phase once the foundations are in place and the “basic management” works. This is necessary for employees to become independently motivated and competent, to start thinking like businessmen and women, and to focus on results and progress.

Only those who have understood and internalized this and are willing to live by these principles can help others to develop. You can achieve performance through pressure and fear, but your employees will be more nervous and anxious than they are competent. No one wants to make decisions or take on responsibility in a company like that. This also means that management needs to be willing to give up power and responsibility, so the organization as a whole can grow. But be careful, it’s a process, and the dose makes the poison!

You may be wondering: how should managers adapt their management style today, during or after the crisis, when they no longer see their employees in person? Do the old rules also apply to remote work? What changes when we practically only ever meet virtually? I write about this topic in one of my next blog posts. Don’t miss it: sign up here (here)

Join us for our next Business Breakfast on “making better decisions” (here) You can also reserve your spot via email at

Have a productive week, with a good atmosphere and constructive criticism!