How To Throw A Knife At Someone

Recently, Technology Marketing Toolkit had an event where they brought in the fighter pilots from Afterburner. Thanks to TMT’s owner, the incredible Robin Robins, I was able to attend.

This was a blast for me, because ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Yes, I know, I have some crazy need for going really fast in dangerous vehicles. So hearing current and retired fighter pilots talk about how to Empower with Flawless Execution absolutely rocked!

The steps that they take is unreal. I thought I prepared well. Bah!!! These guys have a system that causes you to succeed. They have to. If they don’t, people die. And those people are the ones that are protecting our freedom.

Towards the end of their amazing event, Patrick “Lips” Houlahan was discussing how to do a proper debrief meeting. One of the steps covered was about criticism. In leadership, or any position for that matter, you’re going to experience criticism. “Be prepared to take it” he said.

You can’t be so sensitive that if someone gives you quality criticism, you can’t handle it. Now, with that said, let me add that there are a ton of people who have come out of terribly led businesses. Dysfunctional would not be too heavy of a word to use. So their “criticism” tends to be just complaining and blaming.

Therefore, it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, when you have a team that is mature, and responsible, and can be trusted, then you need to have an environment where criticism is not only allowed, but encouraged. Why? Because our goal is to constantly be getting better.

When you have this kind of environment, you can do what Lips suggested next – “If you throw a knife into someone’s chest, please make sure there’s a note attached to it.” As you can imagine, that got quite the laugh. He went on to explain that when you are going to criticize someone, you need to make sure that you have given all the info.

Don’t just tell someone what’s wrong with them, let them know exactly what happened, what they could have done differently, and what the steps are for them to correct the situation in the future. Take a look at Whose Fault Is This to see how I structured my most powerful meeting.

The purpose of the critique has to be improve future execution. Not to step all over someone personally. As you do this, and the team trusts each others integrity, you begin to function at a much higher level of productivity. Or as Afterburner instructors would say, flawless execution.

Question: How have you seen criticism gone bad? How have you seen it done right? 



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Meet Chris LoCurto


Chris has a heart for changing lives by helping people discover the life and business they really want.

Decades of personal and leadership development experience, as well as running multi-million dollar businesses, has made him an expert in life and business coaching. personality types, and communication styles.

Growing up in a small logging town near Lake Tahoe, California, Chris learned a strong work ethic at home from his full-time working mom. He began his leadership and training career in the corporate world, starting but at E'TRADE.

84 thoughts on “How To Throw A Knife At Someone”

  1. Great post!! I saw you tweet that you were there and I was pretty jealous!!
    That quote has some awesome imagery!! First, of course, he said a knife in someone’s chest…not back. So No Gossip!!!
    Now I think the difference between good and bad criticism falls partly to the intent. Like you said, are you criticizing to just tear the person down? Or to help the person and the team grow and succeed?
    Trust is such a HUGE part of this! People have to KNOW that you care about them and want them to succeed before they will accept criticism. If they aren’t sure you like and respect them if they see you coming at you with a knife, note or not, they’re going to fight like its life and death against the attack!! Trust is KEY if you hope to be able to give “constructive feedback”.
    Thanks for the post Chris!!

    1.  @Skropp Once you can get past the idea of “hurting someone’s feelings” the team can mature.  This is the key in it not being personal.  When it’s not about me personally, just my behavior/ action, and I know that you care, I’ll take the hit and become better for it.  
      Another great post.  Maybe Chris can start hooking us up with some rides in these jets and race cars ! 

      1. @Domerskee You’re exactly right. The giver of the criticism has to get past worrying about hurting feelings, and the receiver must get past taking offense to any sort of criticism…humility all around!

    2.  @Skropp I’ve always found that my feelings are hurt more by people who want to spare my feelings than by people who care enough about me to be honest with me, in a constructive way.

      1. I think that goes along with personality styles. Now that you’ve been initiated in the ways of the DISC profile, it will make sense. I’m a professional tip-toer and I walk around issues a lot.  People like me need to learn the difference between hurting someone and causing harm.  Unfortunately sometimes is necessary to speak the truth which will hurt people in order to save them from making the same mistakes again.

  2. Chris, I need to hook you up with a fighter pilot who would be great for the podcast. You open to that?  Someone who can speak about leadership lessons that apply to business or something like that..

  3. Wow! What an amazing display of teamwork at such a high level. That must have been quite an experience to take part in…not only the lecture, but the role each pilot had on the team as well.

    Thanks for sharing this with your readers, Chris.
    Oh, and I love the way you threw in the CLo trademark “BAH!”. Nice one!

  4. Awesome saying- flawless execution!  We can all hope to obtain that- at least in our delivery of criticism.  
    True leaders are humble enough to offer the guidance and opportunity for improvement, honoring the person whom you ask for a change in path, direction or results.  The take  personal Ego out of the loop, and in trusting the team as more important than any individual’s  wants, needs or opinions, then their combined results  ascend to higher peaks than ever a solo journey would.  
    Reflecting on the sincerity and value of each team member when offering the insight  will allow the delivery in a manner that honors the team, the individual and the grace of the person extending it.  When your hand is out to give, it is also in a position to receive; it helps if you are ready to have a communication stream and not a one way diatribe.  

    1.  @Kathleen Preach it girl!! Good stuff Kathleen. I’ve always heard the saying that if you’re pointing at someone, there’s usually three of your own fingers pointing back at you. 

      1. @ChrisLoCurto @Kathleen Unless you’re a fireworks “expert” then there may only be 1 or 2 pointed back, if any! But I digress, statement’s still true! 😉

  5. I just recently left a company where the criticism taken was not good at all and the direct management did not want to bend or listen. I learned so many lessons of how Not to take criticism and what not to do. It always leaves you in awe of how some people get in some positions, and how they lead others.

  6. Trust is so important, and if you know the person is giving the critique in order to improve you instead of just to make themselves look better, then it can be taken the right way. Too many times, it seems that people feel like it raises them up to cut you down. Refreshing to find true leaders who are just about making you, them and the team better – especially if they are giving the criticism plus the ways to improve.

    1. @CarolDublin I think the ways to improve are like the icing on the cake. AFTER trust is established ways to improve ate like saying “I really DO respect you and want you to succeed, and I’m provig it by giving you some ideas to do so.

      1.  @Skropp  Yes. I guess it’s really easy to just point out what’s wrong – it takes a lot more thought and concern to give the suggested ways to improve.

        1.  @CarolDublin  @Skropp Yes, yes it is. Infinitely easier to say what’s wrong. That’s probably why (as I mentioned up there somewhere) that my favorite managers always invited me to bring them problems but insisted that I also bring a solution or two whenever I did.

  7. I’ve got a tough call coming up this week.
    The leadership at my day job is, well, not doing very well as far as most of the company is concerned. And we’re all very worried. The board of directors have convened a meeting with the employees (all 70-some of us) to talk about the issues, because a recent board election resulted in 3 of the board members being elected with less than 50% of the vote, simply because there were 5 people standing for 5 spots, and we’re an employee-owned company, shares not publicly traded.
    I’m weighing the wisdom of speaking my mind at the meeting, and of how to do that in a constructive fashion. Any number of my co-workers have approached the president in private and it doesn’t sound like he has taken any of their messages to heart. Nor have any of the other board members. They set up an anonymous system whereby people could ask questions without fear of having those questions attributed to them, but the overwhelming response was negative — everyone figured the attribution would still happen. And my own response was to say that any question I wanted to ask, I would want to ask in person, with my name attached, not hiding behind a veil of anonymity where the question could be easily discounted.
    Anyway, I’m wondering what thoughts you all have about calling out our company’s leadership for having no “why”, no core values, and no vision for the company at a time when we’re bleeding contracts and employees and we have no real plan for stopping the hemorrhage.

  8. I’ve got a challenge coming up this week — we are having a staff meeting wherein our president is asking for questions related to our company’s direction and the reasons behind a recent vote of “no confidence” in our board of directors. Three of the five candiates (for five board slots, so it wasn’t like there was a lot of competition) were elected with less than 50% of the shares voting in an employee-owned company, so there’s definitely some dissatisfaction. Our president was one of those so elected.
    I’m planning to leave the company in the next few months, so I’m trying to decide between just keeping my mouth shut and supporting the questions of others, or actually asking some of the things I’m wondering, like “What are our core values?” and “Why does our company exist at all?” and “What is our vision?” and “How are we going to target our acquisition of new contracts to better focus on ones that will bring revenue through the front door?”
    But, being a worker-bee, it’s a daunting thing to sit there and grill the president on matters like this, no matter how many others in the room might nod along in harmony.

    1.  @Bret From the little you have mentioned, it sounds as though there is little desire for honest and open dialog to begin with at your company.  It might be time for an anonymous donation of 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, or 5 Temptations of a CEO.Or, if you are really bold, it might be time to say “I love the people here, but I am considering leaving because of _______”… just make sure you have a back up plan in place.

      1.  @Matt Steen I’ve got two back-up plans in place, so if worse comes to worst, I’m covered. I can hit the ground running with my own company, and the company I’m subcontracting to has offered to take me on as well, as an employee or as a solo contractor, so I have options.
        Part of the problem, I think, is that we’re all engineers, and even our leadership comes from that background. What we really need are some folks with lots of business background to step in and drive the bus. But as engineers, we keep looking at problems thinking, “I can fix this, if I can just figure out where it’s broken!”

    2.  @Bret The worker bees are the ones in the trenches. It’s ok to address your concerns.  Your leadership needs to know what you can see as as solution, not just the problems.  A good leader values the ones willing to speak the truth, even when it is hard to hear. Just make sure what you say is non judgmental, honest, forthright and non accusatory and includes a solution.  Someone needs to grab the rudder as your fellow employees are pitched about on that ocean of chaos. 

      1.  @Kathleen That’s the challenge, isn’t it? I’m sad to report that gossip has been the main fruit being plucked from our company tree lately as everyone has been shredding our leadership for their failings, but few have been offering many concrete solutions other than “throw them out and replace them.” But as for understanding what qualities to look for in their replacements? Crickets.

        1.  @Bret One good way to combat gossip when faced with it is to have the conviction to say,”it’s my personal philosophy to not make a complaint about something I am not convicted enough to change” helps eliminate the whining to things that really do matter.   People will stop trying to pull you into a negative fest if they KNOW you are only talking about what you will work on. 
          Hang in there-its hard to be the one with hopes and goals when everyone else wants dreams and scenes.

      2.  @Kathleen  @Bret Kathleen hit the nail on the head. You have to go into this with a few things in mind: 
        1) You truly care about the company so your goal is not to tare it down, but to try and set it up for success. Therefore, you can’t be on a witch hunt, which is probably what the gossipers want, to rip these leaders apart. 
        2) Because you care, you need to ask the tough questions to try and “repair” what’s broken. You also need to give feedback on what YOU think is broken.
        3) Again with the whole caring thing, you have to come with at least one, if not three, good answers for fixing the problems that you see. I am WAY more compliant to your pointing out issues, and we know engineers can do that in a heartbeat (High C thing), if you have solutions that take the stress and pressure off of me. 
        Can I share this thread on Twitter? 

    3.  @Bret  Following up on Matt’s comment, you can do the Lencioni Two-Pack and drop copies of The Advantage and Five Dysfunctions of a Team and see if they get the hint!  Wow, tough situation. Hope it all works out!

      1.  @lilykreitinger Great idea. I’ll have to look into some fast shipping from Amazon. Our prez is more of an audiobook guy, so I might end up gifting him some Audible versions instead…

    4.  @Bret That is a tough situation – those are big questions if you’re asking about core values and vision. It’s hard to know if the president is new, how he would respond to honest questions like you suggest, even with a solution included. He might respect you more if you are honest and bring real solutions to the table. I like the idea of the Lencioni 2-pack! I have to say I don’t envy you. Good luck.

      1.  @CarolDublin I’ve always respect leaders who challenged me to not just bring them problems, but to bring them a few candidate solutions as well. My candidates might not ever have ended up being implemented, but the act of thinking the problem through was invaluable, and prevented me from just being a complainer.
        I have some ideas about how we could establish our core values, but I’m hesitant to present a finished list. Ditto with the “Why” question, which is the one I think we most need to answer.

    5. @Bret You’ve received some awesome input here. Absolutely burnt rice quality.
      I don’t know that I can really add anything to it. All I would say is first, I respect you’re determination to speak in person, not anonymously. That shows great character. I think that will be evident if you speak at this meeting. Second, any concerns and suggestions you bring up, frame them in how they are affecting or will benefit the company. Ie having a mission statement will allow or greater focus, team member buy in, and therefore increased productivity and revenue.
      Again, I admire your character Bret! Just remember, history doesn’t remember those who sat there with there mouths shut…so stand up and speak your mind (when, and in a manner that it is best to do so, of course!). Good luck!

      1.  @Skropp  I’ve never been a fan of anonymous forums. It too often becomes a way for people to throw out outrageous statements and then watch from the shadows. The way I see it, if you’re willing to attach your name to your question or your suggestion or your statement, then that shows so much more conviction and commitment.

    6.  @Bret Bret, I don’t envy you man. 
      Ultimately what I’ve found works for me is that I have to answer questions like this under the premise of “which decision will not lead to regrets later?”
      I’ve never regretted saying what was truly on my heart even if no one listened. It might have made no difference, but I had no regret. 
      On the other hand, I have usually regretted not speaking up and then something bad happened because of it.
      Not sure if that helps but I hope that it does.

      1.  @MattMcWilliams2 In this case, the bad I can envision is the death of the company in a few years, or at least its existence as a shadow of its former self. I was employee #30 back in the late 90s, left for about 10 years, and rejoined about two years ago to discover things very, very changed from what I remembered. It’s been like a gut-punch. I really want to see this company be successful, because there’s not a single person in the company that I don’t love. Really. But watching the company tear itself apart from the inside out? The more I think about this, the more I realize the real problem just might be the lack of deliberate positive communication which has led to rampant gossip and negativity which is tearing everyone down. We lost five employees during a two week period just a few weeks ago, it got so bad.

        1.  @Bret Wow Bret. Very similar to my story. Helped start a company (literally first hire), left, and came back 3 years later. It was so different. My best friend, who was CEO, left shortly after I came back. (There is a back story that I can’t share but the reason he left was not good…not his fault at all though). 
          I wanted so bad to see the company succeed. I left a better, higher paying job to go back right before our first child was born (high risk), stayed after my friend left knowing full well why he left and what remained, and continued to stay, in total misery, while people were laid off left and right. My wife finally got tired of every night being “Matt complains about his job” night.
          I never spoke up until the very end. But by that point I was so bitter and angry, that I was not effective. My anger and my poor opinion of other leaders was TOO evident. I reverted back to a few previously overcome childish rants that got me nowhere.
          All because I didn’t speak up sooner. I harbored ill feelings, most of which were at myself for not speaking up. My stress level was too high.
          I was ready to leave, but it could have ended better. I wish it had.
          I should have spoken up sooner and I encourage you to do so, my friend. I promise you, the worst case is that you get everything off your chest and they send you packing…which you plan to do anyway.
          The best case? Who knows? It might just surprise you.
          The best case for me, I later learned, might have been significant ownership in the company, which while suffering, would have meant a substantial amount to me. Who knows what your’s might be. I can assure you though that the worst case is probably worth it.

        2. @MattMcWilliams2 @Bret I had to laugh at your comment about “Matt complains about his job” night. My wife’s in a similar boat, she’s tired of quite a few nights a week being “Mark complains about his job” night. Haha. Maybe they could start a support group!?? Haha. Always appreciate you sharing your experience!!! Burnt rice a la Matt!!

        3. @MattMcWilliams2 @Bret I said our WIVES could start a support group, not us. Guys do do (cough, clears throat) support groups! Wait, is it Monday?? Crap I gotta run to a, Uhhhh, meeting!!

  9. I now work and have worked in the past developing training for clients in regulated industries.  If our trainees don’t get it,  someone gets hurt or killed.  It’s a good way to get focused on the importance of what we do.  Having clear roles and responsibilities and fine-tuning our processes is critical for “flawless execution”.  Lessons learned meetings are a must. We also get to review each other’s materials for consistency and quality.  It does take very mature people to take edits and comments from others, but it also sets the bar really high for outstanding performance.  Great post Chris, I bet you felt like a kid in a candy store!

    1.  @lilykreitinger Oh wow! I love having the others review your work. (I actually hate it inside, but I know it’s a good thing) That is an amazing way to make sure I do my best EVERY time!! 
      And yes I was. 😀

  10. With the group I have around here, I have avoided giving criticism because no-one knows how to accept it and make things better.  After reading Entreleadership & listening to Chris’ advice, the praise/problem/praise has worked wonders.  Everyone (short of 1) seems to be catching on!

  11. One of the problems I have seen with giving feedback is making it personal. I usually try to keep from making things personal, but I have fallen to this as well. The person giving the criticism makes it a personal issue and it becomes an attack; or the person receiving the criticism takes it personally and gets defensive.
    It would be good for us to learn to analyze the facts of the situation and try to avoid pointing fingers. Taking personal accountability is a great way handle criticism as well.

    1.  @JoshuaWRivers That’s what’s so great about these guys. They understand that if it gets personal, it could mean their life. And that’s not worth letting it get personal. 

  12. Great post, Chris.  Learning how to give criticism properly and how to receive it properly are valuable lessons.  Thanks for sharing these tips.
    Also, your article reminded me of a great quote from Tim Sanders’s (@sanderssays) book “Today We Are Rich.”  He says, “Criticism, when spoken to your face, is always a gift.”

  13. Chris you ask “How have you seen criticism gone bad?” 
    Yeah, every piece of criticism I gave circa 2005-2009. I’m only sticking to work or else it would start sooner.
    Here is what I learned…
    Criticism should never contain any of the following statements or questions:
    “What were you thinking?” (At no point in human history has this been an actual invitation to share one’s thought process. It is consider more a statement along the lines of “you’re thinking sucks.”)
    “I want to beat you with a blunt instrument right now.” (Or any similar emotional reaction you might be having that would cause you to want to inflict physical violence upon another human being)
    “Could you have screwed this up anymore?” (Yes, I could. Watch me next time, scooter)
    “Next time, just freaking let me handle it.” (OK. I assume my paycheck will still be the same and I now have more time to study for my fantasy football draft, right?)
    “A [insert politically incorrect physically or mentally disabled term] could have done this.” (you can also substitute the more politically correct “trained monkey”)
    “I need to talk to you….NOW!” (This is ridiculously effective when done in front of others. – sarcasm – It’s the grown up equivalent of being called to the principal’s office. Everyone knows nothing good is going to happen…thankfully no one walks back funny and asks to stand for the remainder of class in the business world though)
    “[Deep sigh] Where do I even begin?” (Well, next time you could save us both a lot of time by preparing for this meeting and getting right to the point, but since you asked…)
    Let the record show that I was once called to the principal’s office for a good reason.

    1. @MattMcWilliams2 I’m gonna take a stab that Chris’ reaction to your post will be “BAH!! Again, laughing out loud in my office!!”. But I could be wrong, it has happened!! Especially appreciated the commentary for each phrase!
      You could also add “why don’t you just shoot me in the head now??” and “My three year old couldve done this better than you!!” and the perennial favorite “is this the type of work I’m paying you for??” (the last one is certainly rhetorical, I don’t advice answering!)

      Haha. Loved ’em Matt!

  14. I saw Afterburner several years ago – incredible!  And read the book “Flawless Perfection” – maybe 3 or 4 times?  It remains one of the staples on my bookshelf! 
    Done wrong?  In an e-mail blasting a person for something they did not even know they should have been doing.
    Done right?  One-on-one – with affirmation at the beginning of what they are doing right – then the challenge they are facing – then the affirmation. 
    The wrong way is the easiest way – just not the most effective. 

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