Critical Friends – who are they and what role do they play?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: January 10th 2012

When I have principals or other school-based leaders who come asking advice, I often ask them, “who are your critical friends at school?” In my experience, having a range of people to run things by not only makes your decision making sharper,  it can provide you with the much needed perspective of those who surround you and work at all levels in an organization. Working with critical friends can sharpen decisions and refine communications.

One of the most important things in establishing critical friends is that you have to be able to create a culture of trust. A culture that develops not just trustworthiness, but trustfulness. I appreciate how these differing concepts are described by Rushworth Kidder. Kidder states that someone who is trustworty, does what they say they will do. They are more than just words, they are action-oriented in that if they tell you that they will follow through, then they will indeed. Trustworthiness is gained over time by following through with integrity. In the other realm is trustfulness. Someone who is trustful has confidence in others. They believe in the ability and skills of the ones who are given a task. They have an inherent belief that others are good and they trust in people.

Critical friends are people who you can ask for their perspective on a concept, decision, analysis, and then trust that they will tell you honestly what they think. They will tell you the truth as they see it in an effort to refine or shape your thinking. In return, their feedback is taken at face-value and no matter what is said, it is honoured as a valued perspective. They’ve given you exactly what you were seeking, a perspective that you may or may not be right in your approach and that there is another equally valid way to view the world. Now your task is to incorporate their feedback in your new plans and to thank them for their input and honesty.

Sometimes, with difficult tasks, you simply have a “gut feeling” that something may not go well or things may turn a specific direction. Stopping a critical friend and asking for their perspective may reaffirm your worries or may put them to rest.

I imagine that at, or near the top, of most organizational needs is a desire to have clear, consistent and effective communication. Part of seeking such communication is finding out who your critical friends are and using them as touchstones for messaging, decisions, and potential outcomes. In your organization, if you don’t have at least a few people who you can call critical friends, then you are missing a chance to make your decision making and communication processes as strong as they can be.