How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others


Bring Out the Best

As leaders, we are often wondering what the best way is to bring out the best in our organizations. We want to help people exceed all expectations and accomplish more than they thought possible.

Yet, the current feedback mechanisms and performance appraisal processes in our organizations often don’t work toward that goal. In fact, Tim Irwin, author of Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others, argues that they do just the opposite. Tim Irwin, PhD is an author, speaker, and leading authority on leadership.

I recently asked Tim to share his perspective on negativity and criticism at work.



What are a few things we often get wrong with criticism in the workplace?

Our brains are hardwired to detect anything that threatens our physical or emotional safety. When a person senses criticism, it engages a “negativity bias” in our brains and generally shuts down the parts of our brains responsible for creativity and problem solving. This is just one reason the often-used term “constructive criticism” is such an oxymoron.



Avoid Words of Death

What are Words of Death?

The workplace, and society in general, are filled with critical words and phrases. For example, in some organizations, the phrase “One Throat to Choke” is used to describe the need for accountability on a project or other initiative. While maybe colorful and entertaining at some level, the use of these words and many others diminish us, at least at an unconscious level. Leaders routinely use statements such as, “I’m going to hold your feet to the fire,” (a torture method in the middle ages) to motivate employees and presumably to get them to work harder. Our brains thrive on affirmation not threats.



If we are on the receiving end of them, what can we do to limit their impact on us?

If it’s our present boss, we may learn some valuable lessons about how not to lead and motivate others. If a “Words of Death” culture prevails in our organization, we may need to consider, “Do I want to spend 40 to 60 hours a week or more in such a toxic environment?”


Share an example of “alliance feedback” that works to bring out someone’s highest potential.influence

Recently I met with a senior officer of a company who had some significant deficits in “Emotional Intelligence.” I could have said, “You have the empathy of a fence post, and no one trusts you.” Those were actually true statements. Would he have heard my feedback and acted on it in a conscientious manner? Doubtful. Instead, I said, “I know you aspire to a larger role in your company, and I think that is a worthwhile and achievable goal. In order to realize that aspiration, I recommend you work on collaborating with your peers more effectively by appreciating the challenges they face in reaching important goals.” What ensued was a very productive conversation about specific actions he could take to collaborate more effectively. He was eager to learn and not defensive in the slightest. The research is compelling that connecting feedback to personal hopes and aspirations bypasses the part of our brain that stays in hyper defense mode.


3 Faces of a Leader

You point out that there are three faces of a leader. What are they and how do we best use this knowledge when leading others? 

We have three dimensions of who we are:

  1. Our outward facing customary style—this is our behavioral epidermis.
  2. Our competencies that fuel our actions—what we do.
  3. Our core—the person inside us who thinks, feels, authors opinions and speaks through self-talk.



Our brains thrive on affirmation and wither under criticism. All three faces benefit from affirmation:

  1. Style—”Your manner in dealing with that unhappy customer was very effective.”
  2. Competence—“Your leadership in the meeting really moved the team toward a great solution.”
  3. Core—“You showed great courage in telling our CEO that his proposed financial restatement was not a good idea.”

While all affirmation can be powerful, affirming another’s core can be quite transformational because it goes to the deepest part of who we are.



Rethink Performance Appraisals

The performance appraisal process is dreaded in most organizations yet seen as a necessary tool. What is your view of the process in most companies and what are some ways to improve it?

tim irwinEveryone hates it…the givers and the recipients. It automatically places the boss in a top down, judgmental position. I favor a partnership or alliance where we acknowledge that we are working together to achieve agreed upon goals. We should talk often about how we’re doing and what we need to do to improve. There is always a place for “contrary feedback,” where an employee is not making meaningful progress on what we agreed to achieve. As I stated earlier, this is best done when acknowledging the person’s commitment to and support of the mission and goals as well as personal aspirations as reference points for a more effective approach to the work at hand. Also, I believe that people can hear all kinds of contrary feedback if they, down deep in their core, know that we are really for them.



For more information, see Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.

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