Leadership is a big responsibility. It comes with a fair amount of criticism. Coping with criticism in a leadership role can be a challenge for many leaders. It requires self-awareness and reflection of how your actions are perceived by others and how you perceive their feedback. So let’s look at how leaders can handle criticism effectively? We recently had a conversation about it in my weekly online mastermind group. Here are the perspectives of my inner circle.
Lately we have been talking a lot about character-based leadership. There has also been some focus on how leaders handle criticism. So, I really started to think about how these two concepts are related. How does character-based leadership influence the way a leader responds to criticism? When a leader is coming from a foundation grounded in his/her very character, I think they have the ability to put criticism in perspective. Is it valid? What are the motives of the individual offering the criticism? Is there a positive take-away from the criticism?
As a leader, you are going to face criticism, but you can’t let the negative connotation affect you on a personal level. You must learn to discern what is true and what is fabricated. And then, act on that which is true. No one likes the feeling of being criticized, but if we are confident in who we are, at our very core, we can evaluate and learn from the feedback, or criticism, offered by others.
More often than not we tend to only value praise. The way you handle criticism says a lot about you and your character. Let’s be honest, it challenges our sense of value, and it’s a natural social survival mechanism to be defensive. But, a sign of great leadership is humility, accepting feedback by responding positively to it, and appreciating the suggestions.
It’s important to detach your emotion from the deconstructive emotions that lie underneath. Don’t respond immediately, pause and reflect. First, consider the source — how much do you care about the person offering you the feedback? Do they tend to always criticize people? Is that person just having a bad day? If so, thank them for the feedback, and let it go.
Or, are they someone whose opinions you value and appreciate? It’s a key skill to determine whether negative feedback is valid, and if there’s something you can learn from it. Be mindful of not only the tone in which you respond but also to your body language, as it can send the wrong message and turn the conversation into a negative or combative one. Remember, criticism is just an opinion, don’t let it paralyze you. It’s through criticism that we stretch and grow.
When we look at a person’s character, we are searching for the ability to make a connection. People’s character is what guides their story. Our connection with one another shifts as the actions of our life happen. How do we stretch our character in a positive forward action-centered momentum? That is where “criticism” can come into play. I really dislike the word criticism as it feels negative. People go into defense mode in order to protect themselves from negative feelings. Remain open when receiving criticism, focusing on the message.
Well intended criticism, based on a trusting connection, can be very powerful. It can help shift a behavior that no longer serves us to a new one that does. When delivering constructive criticism you need to choose your words carefully, be respectful, and as Doug Dickerson says, partner with the person to allow for them to adjust. All of these experiences are what chisels at who we are and they help to define our character.
The late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” One of the finer traits of leadership is accountability. Accountability and responsibility go hand in hand. It’s how we keep ourselves grounded in reality and not allow over-inflated ego’s to get out of control. But leaders can also be on the receiving end of criticism. To be sure, some of it will be misdirected and unfounded. But how you handle it- fait or not, speaks volumes about your leadership. Criticism stings; after all, we are only human. The best thing to do is just take a step back, consider the source, and do some honest evaluation. Is the criticism valid? How might you take it to heart and learn something to make you a better leader? As a leader you will never be immune from criticism but with it come many teachable moments. It’s up to you to use criticism to grow, learn, and ultimately become a better leader.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle had a realist view of criticism. He wrote, “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” In other words, if you really want to be a leader, take into consideration that at some point or another, you will be criticized. Sometimes, leadership demands unconventional approach to do what’s right. In the process of doing what’s right, you are taking a risk and it may involve criticism.
The truth of the matte is that no one likes to be criticized. The real question is not whether you will get criticized but how you handle it. The difference is what makes you a leader. John F Kennedy was harshly criticized for the Pay of Pigs Fiasco during his first days as president of the United States. Many of his military advisors and cabinet members offered to resign. Instead of deflecting criticism and passing the buck, he took a different approach to the fiasco. The media was all over the case wanting explanations to inform the American people why their president failed. John Kennedy took responsibility by saying, “I am the responsible officer of this government.”
When leaders own it and take the criticism with a learning perspective, it makes a difference. They are not paralyzed by the content and or the personal attack. They try to learn and extract the value from the truth. It takes time and humility to face up to it as a leader.