How good leaders handle criticism

Jul 2, 2018 | Coach's Questions

You can’t please everyone is a truism that is particularly important to leaders.  

Leading others in an organization practically by definition means having to make decisions where there is no obvious easy choice. Realistically, there is no choice that will make everyone happy.  

Part of the responsibility that comes with the benefits of being “the boss” is having to make those tough calls and being able to weather the fallout. Some team members will simmer quietly, expressing their upset and discontent behind closed doors and out of your earshot. Others may be much louder, even challenging you and your discussions.

Facing criticism or discontent can be challenging. As Norman Vincent Peale (the late author of The Power of Positive Thinking) said, “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

I once worked for a boss who really liked to be liked.  

This boss was the kind of leader who really wanted to keep people happy with his decisions. It was terrible!

You see, we had a huge project with a lot riding on it and many different points of view. No matter what he did, someone criticized the decision. The more that happened, the fewer decisions he would make.

What if leaders are strategic about who they try to please?

Of course, there are some leaders who always base their decisions on who needs to be happy. They make a decision so a key client won’t criticize them, or so the union won’t, or so a board member won’t. Unfortunately, this means they’re not really making the tough decisions: the client is, or the union is, or the board member is — and often those folks don’t have the full picture that the leader has..  

By seeking to avoid criticism, they are abdicating their authority – and the responsibility – of making the right decisions on behalf of the organization.

How do good leaders make decisions?

Good leaders listen to the opinions of those other stakeholders. They consider multiple points of view, review facts and important information related to the issue, and then they implement the decision they believe will most benefit the organization.

And you see, this is the first key to handling criticism: If your focus is on making the right decision for the organization (not on making yourself look good, or making yourself popular), then it’s easier to confront the criticism head-on, and to debate the merits, without taking it personally.  

The more you try to please others, the more you’re making it personal – and the more you make it personal, the more the criticism interferes with your ability to lead. That’s a vicious circle that results in an indecisive leader who soon gets type-cast.

Once other team members recognize a leader can’t make a decision, you can bet there will be some who go around that leader.

So how do we deal with criticism and remain a rock solid leader?

First, don’t take it personally. That sounds a lot easier than it is, in practice, for many people. The key is to remind yourself, constantly, who or what you’re making the decision for. It should be the good of the organization and its business (products, services, clients, etcetera). Literally reminding yourself of this (silently repeating to yourself, “what is the right decision for the organization?” or something similar) will not only help you make your best decisions, it starts to remove the sting of criticism when you hear it.

Second, don’t react. At least, not immediately! Closely tied into the problem of taking criticism personally is leaders who get defensive quickly. Because they take what critics say personally, they react badly. If they took a minute to review the situation, evaluate the validity of the criticism, and consider how it relates to the big picture they might see it as accurate. The reality is that most criticism will have some truth to it (for example, this decision did affect that department badly…even though it was necessary for the larger organization, or it wasn’t the route that board member would have liked..even though it addressed the falling share price).

Evaluating criticism against the big picture – and how the decision did address the problem or opportunity for the good of the organization – will help you stay grounded in determining whether it was, indeed, a good decision. Note I didn’t say “the best decision,” or “the right decision.” That’s because sometimes there are multiple bad choices, and you have to pick one. Or there are times when there are a number of good choices, but for very different reasons – and you have to pick one.  Making a good decision (even if it turns out it’s not the very best decision!) is often better than missing the opportunity to make any decision at all.

Third, consider whether the criticism is an opportunity to learn. Perhaps you weren’t aware of something, or it’s entirely possible that you miscalculated or moved too quickly. None of us are perfect! Our decisions will not always be good ones – and considering the criticism helps us learn for the next situation, the next decision.  

Great leaders are great listeners – and criticism is an opportunity to listen. Remember, listening doesn’t mean you have to do anything other than genuinely listen and consider what is being said.  

I want you to remember one of the mantras we at Padraig constantly share (courtesy of author Stephen R. Covey): Most people don’t listen with the intention to understand, they listen with the intention to respond.  

Use criticism as an opportunity to listen to understand (it takes practice when you’re used to listening with the intent to reply!), and then decide whether it’s worth learning from. Sure, you’ll begin to learn that some folks are out to criticize you for all the wrong reasons, but some criticism will have merit and it might be constructive. When those around you have valid concerns and worthy feedback, hearing them and understanding them will make you stronger as a leader and will help them see themselves as helping you

Coach’s Questions:

What criteria have you valued most when making tough decisions? When those decisions were criticized, how did you feel? How did you respond? What decisions are facing you now, and how will you manage them having read today’s blog?