Everyone in leadership knows that confrontation and criticism come with the territory. If you are good at what you do, then you are likely dealing with these issues on a regular basis. You are paid to make the hard decisions, which often means having to give and receive criticism.
Successful executive leaders are active in how they approach uncomfortable situations, and their actions are what distinguishes them from others.
There is unpleasantness in criticism, but what is in your control is how you handle it. Throughout my career, I have faced criticism in some form or fashion on a routine basis. What has helped guide me where I am today is attitude. I chose to take the unpleasantness out of criticism and turn every situation into an opportunity. Criticism can be a great tool because of its ability to show us where we can improve.
This is how entrepreneurs, leaders and executives come to be successful — by asking the simple question, “How can I make this better?”
When it comes to handling criticism, this is what I’ve learned:
Resist playing defense. When we hear criticism, everyone’s first reaction deep inside is, “That’s not true!” This is a natural reaction. But you must resist letting this thought go any further. Responding to criticism is not about defending your actions, but understanding where the criticism is coming from. Take a mental step back and assess the situation. Be patient, stay composed and really listen to what is being said.
Take it personally, but then get over it. I hate when people say “don’t take it personally,” because if you are directing a comment at me, is there really any other way to take it?
So, take it personally, but then get over it. Use the information you are given in a productive way, and don’t hang on to hurt feelings or any self-deprecated thoughts. They aren’t useful to you.
Find the opportunity. One of my favorite quotes of advice that I’ve applied to my personal and professional life time and time again was said by Maya Angelou. It goes: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” No one is perfect. We all lead as best we can with the tools at our disposal. Criticism is a learning opportunity if you allow it to be. It should be thought of as a moment to learn something new about yourself, and an opportunity to “course correct” your leadership. I speak a lot about investing in people. Don’t forget that you are one of your people.
Be constructive. The goal of giving criticism should always be to improve the given situation. You should never “vent” your frustrations to an employee, but help them understand what the problem is. Avoid the “blame game” or personal attacks — the language you use is key to constructive criticism. It also never hurts to layer criticism with compliments — let your employees know where they are thriving. By giving criticism, you want to inspire motivation to fix the problem or change the behavior. In my experience, employees who feel like their work is not appreciated don’t take the initiative to grow.
Be specific. Consider your words carefully. Don’t wrap many issues together — this only muddles your critique and will leave your employee exiting your office not quite understanding what the issues is. Be precise with your words, and give detailed examples of behaviors that need to change. Employees should have a clear road map detailing what they need to do and how they can quickly achieve it.
A NOTE ON CRITICS
Not all criticism is constructive. The sad fact is, there are always people who want to see you fail. An essential part of leadership is quickly discerning who these people are so you can put on the blinders. These people and the comments they give are not meant to help you, and therefore, hold no value to you.
Dealing with criticism is an integral part of being a leader. Too many leaders fall into the trap of caring too much about their reputation, which blinds them from the fact that their reputation is built largely from how they deal with criticism. How do you respond when your actions are criticized? How do you present criticism to others?
Remember, with the right approach — and a positive attitude — criticism can fuel your leadership journey.
The John Maxwell Podcast