If you’re going to criticize your team, approach it how a barber would: lather before you shave.

In January of 1863, during the darkest days of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sat down to write a letter to one of his Union generals, Joseph Hooker. Lincoln had appointed Hooker to the post in hopes of turning around the Union’s dismal performance.

But General Hooker had always been a bit of a loose cannon and hadn’t been known to carry himself as an Army general should. He ridiculed his superiors regularly, spread rumors and slander throughout the ranks, and was even quoted as saying that “nothing would go right until we had a dictator.” This kind of behavior only served as salt in the wound of the Union, which had suffered an embarrassing string of defeats that had them on the brink of disaster.

Perhaps it was bad judgment on Lincoln’s part to promote Hooker. Perhaps it was desperation. He knew that appointing Hooker may have been a mistake, but now that the general was firmly in place, he had no choice but to reprimand him. In almost every case, Hooker’s behavior would be grounds for immediate exclusion from consideration, or flat-out removal. But Lincoln was Lincoln. He had patience. He had tact. He was diplomatic. He was the quintessential leader.

Instead of scolding Hooker, which would have emboldened the general to continue his detrimental behavior, Lincoln needed to bring him back to a place of understanding. Here is his letter to the general (bolding is mine, for emphasis):

There will be moments when you have to directly criticize a subordinate’s underperformance. In most cases, seeing the leader take responsibility for a situation (see Delicate Truth Principle) can be enough to convince anyone to take ownership and correct their mistakes as well. But on the few occasions when this method does not work, you must take the path of Lincoln.

If you shave, you know that it can be tempting to take a blade to the skin and remove the stubble immediately. This may be the most direct approach, but it is not the most effective. When you lather your skin with shaving cream, the hair becomes more responsive, the skin becomes more protected, and the shave is more complete. Similarly, when you lather your subordinate with compliments, they become more responsive, the organization is more protected from any possible effects, and the correction is more likely to take hold.

No matter how bad a subordinate is performing, always find genuine compliments to lead with. Build them up before you criticize them. Lower their defenses to heighten their awareness.

Like a barber, lather before you shave.

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