Hey Leaders: Criticism Bites!


When an employee makes a poor decision, you as a leader may be tempted to criticize them or their actions. This is especially likely if there is a pattern of poor decision making.

You do this, after all, because you want to stop this pattern of behavior…

Criticism Bites!

When the employee fails again, you criticize more or harder. You feel like you’re not being heard or you’re being openly defied. You feel like you’re being attacked.

And naturally, the receiver of the criticism also feel attacked.

But what most reactionary leaders do not take the time to consider is the adverse effects the criticism can have on the person being criticized. They simply react with hurtful speech; expect changed behavior; and forget that their harsh and hurtful tongue-lashing ever happened.

They leave their victim to heal their own wounds without any regard for the damage that was done. Reactionary leaders who criticize don’t understand that their venomous criticism can have an almost toxic effect on the body.

More often, it leads to worse performance, motivation, and engagement.

And, they generally don’t understand, nor care, that their criticism rarely generates improved performance.

Vicious Cycle of Criticism

  1. The leader repeatedly criticizes or blames an employee for a particular decision, behavior, or performance.
  2. The employee may accept some responsibility for a particular outcome, but feels undeserving of the amount or degree of criticism. The employee takes on a victim mentality, leading to resistance to change, expectations of further abuse, and feelings of righteousness.
  3. In order to avoid criticism, the employee may delay or fail to report problems in the future.
  4. The employee’s delay or failure to report problems incites the leader to criticize more, which leads to even worse employee performance, motivation, and engagement.

Criticism Kills :: Feedback Builds

It is certainly necessary to provide constructive feedback to your employees.

You do not have to be mean, however, to help others understand that what they have done has not been effective or efficient.

Rather than level criticism, ask the employee to evaluate his or her work and propose a solution for the future. It is amazing how insightful people can be about their own work, especially if the objectives or goals are clear and they don’t feel attacked.

Can you share a story where you have seen the cycle of criticism show up in an organization? I would love to hear how your story played out!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Gary B. Cohen
Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services

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6 Reasons Leaders Don’t Fire Employees and Should!

Scared Boss

So leader, are you a scaredy cat when it comes to firing employees? Or do you suffer from potential fear, regret, anxiety, or “analysis paralysis” when you have to let someone go?

If so, you are not alone!

But these (an many other) reasons so not let you off the hook of responsibility when it comes to your role in keeping your team working best and most efficiently. The sad truth in being a boss is that you will have to let people go.

Sometimes it is for performance, and other times is it because of downsizing. But this is still part of your job.

And although having people around who shouldn’t be there is bad enough, many leaders exacerbate the problem by not firing them.

So what’s a leader to do?

Here are 5 reason, no six, reasons why leaders don’t fire their employees and why they should.

6 Reasons Leaders Don’t Fire Employees and Should!

No. 1 – You see yourself as nice.

When someone is not performing, it is either because they are not motivated to perform or they do not have the requisite skills. If you’ve tried a variety of motivational strategies and have offered skills training, and yet you still haven’t seen significant progress, you and the employee are better off parting ways.

Firing may not seem “nice” in the short-term, but it’s actually the kindest thing you can do for struggling employees in the long-term; the sooner they’re fired, the sooner they can move on to jobs where they have a better chance to succeed.

Don’t let your self-image get in the way of doing what’s right.

No. 2 – You will have to do their job while you find a replacement.

Sometimes a replacement can’t be found within the organization. Sometimes the only one suitable for doing the job is you, the leader. The search for a replacement may take a while, which makes it even harder for you to swallow the idea of doing your job and another one.

Delaying firing is understandable, but not prudent.

Leaving a poorly performing employee in place not only delays the problem, it can amplify it. There is no telling how much of a drain this employee will place on morale and how much your leadership will be questioned–due to your tolerance of bad behavior or poor results.

No. 3 – You feel like you have not given the employee enough time.

You wake up every day competing with another company or someone wanting to get your job. Customers don’t want excuses; they want the best service available ASAP. Time isn’t a luxury you can afford.

If the deadline for improved performance has passed for this employee, start looking for a replacement.

Don’t keep restarting the clock.

No. 4 – They have been with the company for so long.

Loyalty is important to an organization’s stability and sustainability. All the accumulated knowledge and wisdom held in your employees’ minds helps you avoid past mistakes, maintain group identity, and support each other through ups and downs.

Loyalty, though, is a two-way street. Is it loyal for an employee to decrease output, engagement, alignment, and accountability, or fail to develop new skills? Both parties need to have each others’ backs.

Prolonged let-ups and let-downs are signs that the relationship has run its course.

No. 5 – You make the employee more important than your vision and mission.

As a leader, you are required to put the organization’s vision and mission ahead of any single employee, including yourself, while being true to your values and the organization’s.

Don’t let one employee deter or prevent the organization from fulfilling its vision and mission.

No. 6 – You think the remaining team members will dislike you.

Leaders often worry about the effect firing one employee will have on the rest of the team. They worry about being disliked. They worry about employees being angry or dispirited to the point where it decreases performance. They might worry about key members protesting or leaving.

Usually, though, if the fired employee was dragging the team down (and creating additional work for other team members), the team may miss the person, but they will celebrate your decision.

You will likely see the level of productivity go up,  not down, when everyone is pulling their own weight.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Gary B. Cohen
Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog

Image Sources: DK Photography

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Leaders: Are You Spoon-Feeding Your Employees?

Spoon Feeding

I had lunch recently with a very competent business leader who has worked primarily at large Fortune 500 companies. She is the model of Ask, Don’t Tell Leadership in practice.

Yet, at times, she finds herself guilty of “over-providing” solutions for her team.

Helping Becomes Hurting

She assumes that by the time her employees come to her, they have exhausted all possible solutions. She believes that strongly in their capability, yet in reality, she is a bit quick to give-in with answers that her people could find themselves.

When I asked her, in hindsight, did she find this to be true:

Did your employees actually do all the hard work of seeking the best solution?

She had to answer “No.”

She said this because her employees know that occasionally she will do the heavy lifting to solve a problem, they don’t always push themselves to find answers.

She strives to be a Teflon Woman, where problems don’t stick to her. Now, she is trying even harder. To be an effective leader, she knows that she has to be more resolute in delegating responsibility and creating authority.

She must hold team members accountable for their own areas of responsibility.

Asking The Right Questions

When her team comes in to see her, she now asks these questions:

“What have you done to deal with this problem?

Where else might you go to solve this issue?”

And with this, her team members turn and walk out the door, knowing that she will not be doing their work. This approach isn’t always easy for them. Some employees adjust to this framework more easily than others. But by maintaining the questioning posture, she can better assess whether team members have truly exhausted all possible solutions within their grasp.

Robbing Everyone’s Futures

Leaders who fall into the trap of completing their team’s work are not only stifling the team members’ growth as leaders, they are holding back their own growth as leaders.

If the leader is called upon to solve all or most problems, the company does not benefit from the brainpower of all its employees.

If the leader leaves or is unavailable, the remaining employees will not be equipped to solve problems on their own. On the other hand, if the leader asks his/her team to solve problems they encounter, there is a possibility for new and innovative thinking.

Individuals will be motivated to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Stuck In A Rut

Assumptions in organizations can become chronic. In one organization I observed, the outgoing leader did not want salespeople to work remotely.

This became so ingrained that when the leadership changed, the rule about not working remotely remained. Some highly qualified sales job candidates were not hired as a result.

When the new leader questioned this process, he was told, “It’s always been that way.”

Leaders must continually question assumptions—their own and others’. Often VPs are not willing to question everything, so this becomes even a larger task for the President and/or CEO to accomplish. The exceptional leaders that I know challenge assumptions with questions.

In the process, members of their teams become dynamic and innovative leaders in their own right.


Never miss an issue of Linked 2 Leadership, subscribe today here!
Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog

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Leadership Weekend with Gary: Apples, Cars, and Halt


Asking Questions with APPLE

Asking questions is critical to great leadership. Remembering to ask questions can be difficult for new leaders. If you are struggling with asking questions, try this acronym, APPLE!

Ask the right question. Right questions are open-ended and encouraging. They help others imagine new solutions.

Pause after you ask the question. Accept silence, even if it’s uncomfortable. The pause gives your team time to think. Don’t bail your team out with another question (unless your first was poorly worded) and don’t provide your answer.

Pick a team member to provide the first answer. Always start with either the most introverted or the lowest ranking to draw them out, then let the usual suspects respond.

Listen closely to what is said. Does the body language confirm the comment, indicate indecision, or suggest falsehood? What wasn’t said, and why?

Expound on what you hear and test it out with additional questions. Show understanding and enthusiasm for your team’s ideas and a willingness to bestow credit and explore further.  The more you demonstrate this support and interest, the more your team will reward you with greater alignment, engagement, and accountability.

Bring an APPLE to the next meeting to remind you that asking questions with APPLE works!



Your CARs Can Get You Hired

Getting hired can be difficult,  even for talented leaders–not because they’re not the right for particular jobs, but because they don’t know how to tell their stories.

Chris Cohen, a partner at the Chandler Group and one of the top three executive recruiters in Minneapolis working with non-profits, instructs job candidates to know their CARs:




CARs will help you tell your story in the form employers want to hear–the challenges you’ve faced, the actions you took to overcome these challenges, and the results you secured for your organization.

Brainstorm as many CARs as you can, then write down the best ones.

Commit them to memory and work them into your resume and cover letters. Have them in your proverbial pocket so that you can respond thoughtfully in interviews, and share your best CARs with recruiters so that they can retell them to their clients.

If you want your CARs to get off the lot and get you hired, practice and perfect your stories. Great stories stick.

Related Reading: If you want to know how to make something sticky, pick up Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (an excellent read)!



HALT! Stop speaking and start eating!

Executive Coaching clients seek wisdom that is memorable and easy to implement. Sometimes that wisdom is geared toward actions they, as leaders, can and should take; other times it’s toward actions they shouldn’t take.

HALT falls in the latter category.  I learned it from Dr. Faron Hollinger, a former School Superintendent from Alabama and now a Board Chair for Board of School Superintendents. Dr. Hollinger recommends that leaders not say anything if they are:





If you’re hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired, you’re not in a good position to lead others. You’re likely to make decisions or comments that you later regret–especially if you’re speaking in front of reporters, other leaders, easily influenced coworkers, or large groups. You can’t un-say these words and withdraw their effect on others.

If you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, HALT!

Before you say or do something you might later regret, eat some food, cool down, find good company, and/or get some rest.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog

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On Vision and Leadership

Mind's Eye

“The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust

On Vision & Leadership

As an executive coach you are parachuted into different organizations to work with leaders. One of the first questions I ask an organizational leader is what is your vision. Many have to think about that question for a minute before explaining that they do not have one or that they cannot recall it at the moment.

VisionSome will share their vision and I will ask if I go an interview employees from around the company will they share the same vision with me.

Often the response is, “I would like to think so.”

As you dig further into the vision of the organization you arrive at some convoluted and unclear set of words that you would never now if you accomplished them or not.

The Everest Test

Is your vision statement like that. Will it pass the Everest test. You know, if you set out for an expedition to climb Everest as your vision you would know that you arrived and know that you had accomplished it looking back.

Passion and Vision

Defining Your Vision

So how does one define their vision?

Jim Collin’s suggests asking three questions to determine your vision (Jim Collin’s Vision Framework):

  1. What can you be world best at?
  2. What are you passionate about?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

These are really helpful questions if you take them to the extreme. It provides a clarity that you can get no other way.

As and executive coach, I so often find CEOs, Executive Directors, or Managing Partners not being pushed far enough on becoming clear in their answer to these questions. The difficult issue for leaders is to answer the questions and care about that answer. Many leaders care more about the hierarchy than the vision and mission that they are there to serve.

They run the numbers and it is the numbers that drive them rather than looking at those numbers as a measurement of progress of achieving their vision.

Using Better Tools

I use a tool I have developed to help companies Vision statement worksheet . It asks the leader and their team to determine what is the measurement of their success (Collin’s economic engine).

What I have learned in this work is that simply saying your financial measurements as the yardstick in your vision is like pouring water on a fire. Your people do not care about that number. Your company or organization originally was founded  on a purpose to change something for someone. It was set up to meet an unfulfilled need. The founder discovered this need and along the way they or some leader who followed realized it could be exploited. And it grew then somewhere along the lines the willingness to exploit exceeded the need of the market.

  • Where are you taking your company and why?
  • Are you simply replacing some competitive product that is equally good?
  • Or are you driving real value in those you produce goods or service for?

If you are not, then perhaps you need to reach for a higher vision.

Seeing An Example

If your company produces safety products for food production perhaps the greater world needs you more than your current market. I am not suggesting leaving the market you’re in, but harvesting it for expansions into the world in which the need for what you sell is greater than the market you already serve.

Instead of putting another bell or whistle on your product in the local market think about the global market as a way to live more passionately with protecting the world’s food supply.

Now this is something that others can get behind!

Seeing Over The Horizon

“Vision,” Jonathan Swift wrote, “is the art of seeing things invisible.

Many organizations struggle with their vision because they only look to the horizon and not past it.

The idea of vision goes back to a term that says we must look past the horizon for something that can only be seen in the mind’s eye but not really seen by our senses.

It speaks to something that can been seen but not by common sight of the eye.

The greatest difference between a manager and a great leader may lay in the ability to envision a future and bring others into the state together. To carry out things bigger than ourselves we must first have to imagine that place, outcome, or success!

For Instance…

If you are an Olympic athlete and you believe you can be the best skier in the world, but lack the passion to seek that vision, you will not earn the gold and win. Or in business if you are determining what industry or market to serve (and many could use your services,) which one will you focus on. Which one do you want to be world best at serving.

Bringing clarity to your vision is one of the greatest gifts that you can bring to your teams. So what are you doing to clarify your vision by defining your passions, understanding what you can be world-class in, and by knowing what drives your economic engine? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services


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A Leader’s Dilemma: Spinning the Moral Compass

Two summers ago my wife and I attended the Aspen Institute‘s Ideas Festival with my mother.

One of the many great takeaways was a keynote dialogue with Michael Sandel in typical and great Socratic fashion. He opened with moral dilemma.

One Tough Leadership Decision:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by the mad philosopher. You, as a Leader, have the ability to pull a lever and direct the trolley down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track.”

Should you pull the lever?

A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to pull the lever. According to simple utilitarianism, pulling the lever is not only permissible, but morally speaking, would be the better option (the other option being no action at all).

While simple utilitarian calculus seeks to justify this course of action, some non-utilitarians may also accept the view. Often the problem is stated with a mad philosopher initiating the dilemma.

Opponents might assert that, since moral wrongs are already in place in the situation, pulling the lever constitutes a participation in the moral wrong, making one partly responsible for the death when otherwise the mad philosopher would be the sole culprit. Opponents may also point to the value of human lives.

It might also be justifiable to consider that simply being present in this situation and being able to influence its outcome forms an obligation to participate. If this were the case, then deciding to do nothing would be considered an immoral act.

A Different Perspective:

Some critics argue that the real fact of producing an all-inclusive moral theory, capable of addressing with clarity such staged or otherwise very real dilemmas, might not be attainable after all.

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge over the tracks, and you can stop the trolley by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very large man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Resistance to this course of action seems strong

Most people who approved of sacrificing one to save five in the first case do not approve in the second case.

This has led to attempts to find a relevant moral distinction between the two cases.

One clear distinction is that in the first case, one does not intend harm towards anyone – harming the one is just a side-effect of switching the trolley away from the five. However, in the second case, harming the one is an integral part of the plan to save the five. – Wikipedia

The Leader’s Moral Compass:

What Michael Sandel is teaching us is the difference between Consequential Morality and Categorical Morality.

Consequential Morality

~is when the consequences of actions, making morality inseparable from context. i.e. when we are given certain events, our circumstances can change how we act – the trolley driver diverting the train to kill one to save five.

Catagorical Morality

~is always described as principally being a function of how an act impacts the affected i.e. in the trolley dilemma killing 1 to save 5 is wrong.

As a leader, have you had to make decisions where the only available choices were “the lesser of two evils?”  What criteria do you use to evaluate the moral consequences of your leadership decisions?  Have you ever been in a position where you had to sacrifice one team member to save the entire team?  Would you choose to pull the lever or push the man off of the bridge?  Do you feel either scenario is justified?

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Gary Cohen is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He serves clients with executive coaching and leadership coaching services

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Edited by Ken Jones

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Leadership Insights: 10 Questions

Author Gary Cohen starts our new occasional series called Leadership Insights. We provide deep insights into the minds of thought-leaders, practitioners, and everyday experts in the areas of Leadership Development, Organizational Health, and Personal & Professional Growth.


These Leadership Insights come from an interview with Cali & Jody, authors of Why Work Sucks! And What are You Going to do about it!

Gary Cohen:

What are your top 10 questions you ask your clients to move them forward toward a Results-Oriented Work Environment (ROWE)? These are the key questions that organizations need to ask themselves in order to move toward ROWE are based on what Cali & Jody call the 13 Guideposts:

Cali & Jody Questions

1) Are people in your organization able to make common sense decisions about what they work on and what they don’t work on, as long as they reach their outcomes? [And not just the “senior” people, but everyone]

2) Do you have core hours? Why?

3) Is every meeting in your organization optional? EVERY meeting?

4) What time is it on the clock when people are “coming in late” to your office? What time is it when they’re “coming in early”?

5) How many hours do you expect people to work – in a day? In a week? Why?

6) If someone is going to not work on a Thursday, do they submit vacation time?

7) How are your employees available when they’re not working?

8 ) Who do your employees need to tell if they’re going to leave the office for 3 hours and go to a movie?

9) How clear and measurable are your employees’ goals and expectations?

10) How do you know if your employees are reaching their outcomes?


Gary asks Cali & Jody some great questions. They answer the questions in the context of before and after the ROWE training.


Gary Cohen:

As a leader, what are the questions that I was likely asking in the Pre-ROWE environment to align, engage, motivate, & hold co-workers accountable? And what do those questions change to in the new, post-ROWE environment?


Cali & Jody:

As a leader, there are questions you might be asking today that you think are engaging and motivating employees, and helping them to hold each other accountable. However, the ROWE mindset might change them. Here are some examples:


“Let’s get everyone together next Friday for a barbecue.” Or “Let’s plan an off-site teambuilding event.”


Team socialization is driven by the team, not the manager. If a team is experiencing low engagement in the work, it won’t be solved by spending more time together – it could, in fact, make the situation worse!


“Let’s congratulate Eric for the great job he did on his last project. He actually gave up Thanksgiving dinner with his family and came in last weekend to meet his deadlines.”


“Let’s congratulate Eric for the great job he did on his last project. His outcome was to deliver a system for delivering our product that would improve customer satisfaction by 10 points. The system he created has done just that!” [No mention of time, hours, or effort – the praise is for the end outcome]


“I’ve noticed that you’ve been falling short on your expectations over the last few months. Let’s have you come back into the office vs. working at home and see if things improve.”


“I’ve noticed that you’ve been falling short on your expectations over the last few months. What can I do to assist you? Are you clear on the expectations?” [No reference to where the work is happening]

How well is your organization doing at answering these 10 questions with honesty and integrity. How do these questions make you feel about how you are running your business. If you work for a “traditional” organization, how would ROWE help your group free up intellectual capital and motivation within the ranks? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Gary Cohen
is Author, Speaker (on leadership) & Executive Coach at CO2 Partners
He can be reached at

Image Sources: sedelmynt.se, images3.wikia.nocookie.net

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