Have you ever been offered the support of a ‘critical friend’ over the course of your career? How did you react? Did you internally recoil at the word ‘critical’, glaze over the word ‘friend’, and avoid the conversation at all costs?
It doesn’t have to be like that. Critical has another definition – vital. A critical friend is a key ally, whose subtle, objective support is crucial to your success as a leader.
In this post, I offer a definition and an example of how this role can work really well, especially in complex situations where it can be difficult for leaders and managers to see a clear way forward.
I recently acted as a critical friend to unlock a difficult situation between a senior leader and her newly formed team. Hers was one of several teams being engaged in a national Estates Transformation programme. The remit of this West Midlands group was to look at how their location could ‘be the best’ in comparison to others.
Following some prep time with the leader, who I’ll call Joanne, she confidently took charge, loving the idea of interactive exercises and visual tools that I had advocated to her.
Initially, Joanne’s mindset was to ensure that this location was ‘the best’, and she was happy for the team to interact and explore – on her terms. Tensions rose a little, as opposing camps threatened to dig in. Comments from the group included:
- Isn’t it divisive?
- Lack of time to enjoy better facilities, due to pressure of work
- People choose a location based purely on travelling time
- Objectives of this group duplicate what other groups are looking at
The critical friend role
Joanne tried several ways to persuade the team, even acknowledging she was like a dog with a bone! The meeting was going nowhere. So I ramped up my critical friend role:
- I made observations from the back of the room
- I encouraged Joanne to take a break, so I could discreetly coach her on a way forward
- I got the group to discuss their hopes and concerns
These steps gave the group more ownership of the situation.
Joanne was clearly anxious – facilitating rarely goes to a plan. I softened my tone and my pace as we spoke which visibly calmed her. As I observed, I gently sowed a few sad but essential seeds of doubt into the proceedings:
- Judging by body language, not everyone is as fond of this location as Joanne
- Has the Executive Board agreed that one location should be singled out as the best?
- Structure charts prepared earlier, clearly evidenced a lighter remit for this group than for others
I facilitated the group to openly and honestly share their views, which reinforced Joanne’s growing conclusions. It emerged:
- These volunteers had not specifically chosen this group
- More mobility across departments and locations has generated collaboration, which is at odds with the stated objectives
I handed back to Joanne to summarise the change of direction. This maintained her integrity and credibility. Even the strongest leader can be blown off course by the odd Storm Doris while driving complex, transformational change. She identified robust Actions, to communicate the turn of events.
What did we learn?
The meeting ended positively, with unanimous plans to record honest outcomes and lessons from this event, and to involve Joanne’s volunteers in other groups.
I always find the critical friend role fascinating and powerful, learning from each occasion. So what could I have done better? I could have got Joanne to:
- Agree objectives and expectations at the outset
- Remain more open by parking her personal views
- Focus more on inclusive, collaborative facilitation
However, my previous experience, and her feedback persuades me she’ll benefit from having a critical friend on this occasion.
If you want to know more, see this role and definition of a critical friend from the National College for School Leadership. Also see how we use this approach as part of our Business Coaching for Leaders.
About the author
Maureen Whyman is the owner of Lose the Box, a Business Improvement consultancy based in the East Midlands. They are specialists in Continuous Improvement, Lean Thinking, cultural and behavioural HR, Transformation and Change Management. They support leaders, managers, teams and individuals with Business Improvement, via coaching, training and on-site workshops.
Lose the Box consultants blend simple science with creative facilitation, getting people to work much more effectively together. Their unique approach ensures skills are transferred, achieving sustained efficiencies and measurable benefits for their clients. See testimonials here.
Please contact us on 07824 660 120 or email@example.com for a no-obligation discussion if you think we could be of assistance.