When U.S. pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski came in second place to Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva at the Olympics, many coaches would have praised her for coming in second only to a world champion who won 14 consecutive major competitions since 2003. But instead her coach Rick Suhr blasted her by dismissing her accomplishment with the words: “It’s the same old, same old,” and even NBC commentators were shocked by his accusatory words, asking: “Didn’t she just win the silver medal? Where’s the joy?”
Well, Suhr is an example of the bad boss who uses negative put-downs and withdrawing approval to get an employee — or an athlete in this case — to do better. But using destructive criticism is definitely not the most effective way to motivate anyone to achieve, according to workplace relationships expert Gini Graham Scott, author of the best-selling book “A Survival Guide to Wroking with Bad Bosses,” published by AMACOM. In fact, Scott points out, “Disparaging someone who has done well may have a negative effect in the future, causing the person to become discouraged or resentful, as well as undermining their self-esteem, thereby contributing to a subsequent poor performance. Such a coach is like the abusive parent who is continually belittling his or her offspring for not measuring up, and even dog trainers know that you don’t get the best performance out of the dog with angry shouts and kicks. And when an athlete doesn’t perform as well as hoped in the future, the critical coach is apt to blame the athlete, rather than his or her own non-supportive behavior.”
Unfortunately, there are many bad bosses, as well as coaches like that, as Scott describes in Working with Bad Bosses. Such bosses are only too quick to criticize employees, emphasizing what they have done wrong, rather than showing them how to improve in the future. And even good dog trainers know that this positive approach is what works well, when they praise a dog for trying its best and provide treats as a reward, motivating the dog to try to do even better.
In short, the best performance comes from being supportive and encouraging, providing praise for doing the best one can, and offering specific suggestions on what to do to perform even better in the future. Then, that can lead to an even bigger reward and celebration. And along the way, coaches, like bosses, should provide praise for milestones reached, so the athlete or employee will want to strive for the next one — not fear the possibility of being put down once again, while striving as hard as possible, for turning in a performance below the goal the coach or boss has set. That’s because destructive negative criticism can initiate the beginning of a vicious cycle downward, as an unwarranted criticism of a performance leads to a poorer performance in the future due to fear. By contrast, a supportive inspiring boss or coach is more likely to inspire the athlete or employee to do much better, because they are motivated by the hope of achieving a great performance, not held back by the fear of failing to achieve.
Nevertheless, even if an athlete or employee is faced with such a bad coach or boss, there are things they can do to overcome such disparaging criticism, such as using self-talk or affirmations to avoid taking the comments personally and to build up their self-esteem. In her book, “A Survival Guide to Wroking with Bad Bosses,” Gini Graham Scott provides tips for employees on what to do when faced with all kinds of bad bosses, including those who are overly critical like coach Rick Suhr. A Web site for the book, which includes sample chapters and a quiz on how bad is your boss, is at www.badbosses.net.