,Like some of the very best oxymorons - "working holiday", "open secret", or even "living dead", "critical friend" seems at first sight to be a bit, well, confusing. But once we know what it means, no other phrase comes close to explaining in such depth what this relationship involves.
In our first blog on this subject, Martin Griffiths explained why a business, team or individual might have a need for a critical friend. In this one he answers the question "What exactly IS a critical friend?"
âLike many business techniques adopted in the professional services, the concept of the critical friendâ¨ was first developed elsewhere. The term was coined â¨in the education sector, where this approach is often used in the context of a research project, where the critical friend supports and challenges the project by bringing an informed external perspective to the work. A critical friend is also often used in this sector as partâ¨ of an improvement process, where the approach brings an external perspective to, in this context, the school or college. Having gained an increasing profile in education in the 1990s, the term âcritical friendâ became more widely used throughout the UK public sector, having been strongly promoted by the strategy unit of the Cabinet Office during Tony Blairâs time in office.â¨
To those unfamiliar with the approach, the term âcritical friendâ may not make sense,â¨ as it appears to contain an inherent conflict or contradiction. John MacBeath, professor of educational leadership at Cambridge University, explains this contradiction and how the approach works: âFriends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as âtrue friendshipâ â a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.â (No Quick Fixes: Perspectives on Schools in Difficulty, Falmer Press, 1998).
So, a critical friend is someone who isâ¨ on the side of the person they are working with, who encourages and supports them, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, they are someone who agrees to speak truthfully but constructively.
There are many parallels between a critical friend and the use of mentoring â¨and coaching. These take a non-directive approach, at which conversation is at the heart, that helps an individual explore issues and possible options, supporting them to find the best solutions themselves. But the role of the critical friend goes beyond the facilitation role of a coach; they will be an independent expert, a source of suggestions, ideas and examples, and a means of leveraging external networks. In other words, the approach can be more directive; it is â¨key to the role that they are able to openly and frankly challenge both the thinking and actions of those they support.
This technique helps professionals and organisations maintain a continuous cycle of improvement and is increasingly being adopted by professional service firms that want to develop their business.
In future posts we will look at;
Who might use a critical friend?
Can critical friends support teams as well as individuals?
How might I find a critical friend?
How do I get a critical friend arrangement in place?
Richmonte Wells offers a full suite of executive individual and team development: coaching, succession planning, Board Development, Strategy and Away days, high performance team building, First 100 days and Lateral Hire Support. We also work with Senior and Managing Partners, CEOs and Practice Directors and their teams either through mentoring or Critical Friend support. If you would like to know more about Critical Friend support for you or your team, please contact Martin Griffiths.
NB: this blog post originally appeared in a slightly different form in Managing For Success April 2017
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