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Continuous Compassionate Criticism: At the Heart of Coaching

When you make a mistake in typing or in spelling, it’s good that an icon doesn’t flash all over your screen with a green monster sticking its tongue out and screaming at you that you’re a total idiot. Those kinds of frequent attacks on your self-esteem are unlikely to motivate you to produce more and increase the quality of your work. It’s an overwhelming, debilitating form of feedback.

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However the opposite of this is also a problem. Most people can merrily type away while their word processing program automatically fixes mistakes that the person never realises he made. This is not blissful ignorance. This is the kind of cluelessness that leads to arrogance and complacency.

To stay on top of our game, and especially to get better at what we want to be excellent at – we need continuous compassionate criticism. It’s hard to find sources for that, but absolutely essential.

A key reason great athletes become great, stay great and get even better is that they have an insatiable appetite for improvement. They are highly receptive to feedback and being challenged. They believe in themselves and their pervasive superiority over their competitors but they are almost always open to improving and recognising what they are doing now might not be optimal.

This is less true in the case of top-level executives. Most I have worked with and know about are hyper-sensitive about criticism. They are thin-skinned and they avoid it. That may be an important reason that the average time at the top for a chief executive in most developed countries is about 3.5 years. Eventually all those blind spots and delusions of superiority (and even infallibility) catch up with these arrogant executives and they are deposed.

The art of the coach is to deliver this continuous compassionate criticism in a highly individualised way; tailoring the feedback and leavening it with humor and warmth so that the athlete – and ideally the top business leader – can receive it willingly, hear it fully, internalise it completely and put the improvement into action consistently.

Topics: The art of coaching, resilience, focus, discipline, compassionate criticism