Harsh critics are often talented, intelligent, and productive people. Unfortunately, they have a flaw that compels them to disparage others – almost, at times, as though they are diagnosing an illness in need of eradication. It seems they’re living according to the famous quip by Mark Twain: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
In the language of the self-help and recovery movements, these folks are often suffering from a disorder known as, “If You Spot It, You Got It [IYSIYGI].” It works like this: You notice that colleague X has what is, in your mind, is an affliction. You then take it upon yourself to castigate him for his affliction — irrespective of whether or not it impairs his on-the-job performance or has a negative effect on group morale.
What makes this dynamic so ugly is that unbeknownst to the person under attack, the critic is being driven to criticize by a repressed-and-intolerable feeling that he’s “got” what he deplores in others.
For instance, years ago a client of mine and I were having dinner when he asked if I could help with a dilemma: “Diane, my comptroller, a woman 100% dedicated to the business, is also nastier than a junkyard dog. She doesn’t just monitor spending; she beats people up for what she sees as waste, failure to stick to protocol, issues with record-keeping… nothing major, but stuff that is technically wrong. If she assumes you are fudging parts of expense reports — say, claiming a lunch that’s not 100% business-related — she’ll attack you like Muhammad Ali in his prime. She assaults my EVP of sales so regularly, he vows to quit if I don’t fire her.”
My client was not prepared for my response: “I’m willing to bet Diane’s cooking the books so she can pocket cash.”
After catching his breath, my client took my bet. “Diane’s so honest, she could be a priest if the Pope allowed women to serve in that role,” he said.
But within a year, he was obligated to buy me a rare box of Cuban cigars after losing our bet: it turned out that Diane had been embezzling funds for 20 years.
That’s an extreme example of IYSIYGI behavior, but whether it’s a strong or a mild case, it’s a form of what psychologist call projection: A psychological defense mechanism that enables a person to deny their own issues by attributing those traits to others. Projection lets us condemn the traits or we find distasteful, repugnant, or worthy of punishment. IYSIYGI behaviors are, at times, benign –like me chiding my wife for leaving countless pairs of shoes around the house while my bonsai workbench looks like an earthquake hit it— but typically it is not. Ongoing IYSIYGI assaults can become significant threats to company morale.
When I bet my client that Diane was engaged in criminal behavior I was behaving “criminally” as well: Stealing candy from a baby. After studying IYSIYGI defensive tactics for years I knew that anyone who evinced hyper-rigid moralism –coupled with an intense bias against transgressors— was likely to terribly flawed.
In a very real way, Diane and all who condemn others owing to IYSIYGI drives are caught up in Shakespearean “doth protest too much” defensiveness. The anxiety that your own component parts are out of order –not the flaws of someone else— is the emotional pain that prompts an IYSIYGI attack.
IYSIYGI behavior is a fairly deep-seated problem that needs a clinician, not a coach, to resolve. That said, there is much that managers can do to minimize this dynamic on their teams.
The first step is to ignore faultfinders and instead reward problem solvers. In my opinion, we have become a nation obsessed with reproach: quick to jump to conclusions, take offense, and chide each other. The effect on our politics is bad enough, but it’s also been costly to our companies – and our relationships. Rather than assume that a problem has been caused by somebody’s ill-will, take a “stuff happens” attitude and simply ask the person or people closest to the damage to address it.
The second step is to encourage transparency – and forgiveness. The simple act of confessing your foibles can be incredibly beneficial. And learning from your confessor that you are not alone, that you are more “normal” than you assumed, is a major stress reducer. Finally, learning to be more patient with your own flaws will help you be more patient with those of others.
Finally, make sure that negative feedback is always given in the context of what can be done about it. Arguably, the worst thing IYSIGYI critics do is metaphorically curse the darkness while refusing to light a candle.
One executive who I was hired to coach, a man universally disliked by his direct reports, kept asking me, as a rhetorical rationale for his department’s under-performance, “How can I soar with the eagles while surrounded by turkeys?” I soon tired of this defense and recall snapping at him, “To hell with soaring… why don’t you just fly out of the barnyard so we can look at how you can do your job without justifying failure by fault-finding?” As bad as this intervention was, it served its purpose in that the executive admitted that he struggled to relate to his staff — and needed to learn to do so.
Still, in hindsight I wish I’d told that man, “Why not try to free yourself to soar by adopting the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ If you do, you’ll be amazed at how rarely your direct reports interfere with your flight plans.”