I don’t know one leader, at home or at work, who hasn’t dealt with criticism, and is most likely dealing with some degree of it right now. Truth is, if you’re not getting some heat, you’re probably not doing much worthwhile.
In fact, that’s one way some people avoid criticism. One way to handle critics is to fantasize about working in a criticism-free zone. With great regularity leaders leave where they are to find that place, only to find that place doesn’t exist. Clearly there are differences, and some places are actually toxic, but some places are healthy and even they have criticism.
So the point is, we’re all going to deal with criticism, so we need to learn to handle it well. Criticism makes us defensive and often childish. One of the things that is true of most every leader who doesn’t do well over time is that they have never defeated those tendencies. We need to deliberately up our emotional intelligence to deal well.
Abraham Lincoln was in the crossfire of a nation at odds, but emotional intelligence was high on his list. He observed, "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how; the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
He handled the critics in a wise manner and retained, even grew, his leadership.
He didn’t hide his head in the sand and try to paint a positive picture. He knew he had critics, knew what they were saying, and acknowledged them.
He didn’t waste time trying to answer all of their attacks. He kept the main thing the main thing and kept on leading.
Lincoln didn’t try to make people happy. He simply tried to do the next wise thing for the nation.
He was humble enough to learn from his critics. He didn’t simply dismiss their perspectives because they were against him. He listened and learned and even asked some of his critics to serve on his cabinet. He knew that high-quality criticism is a gift.
Danielle Harlan in her book, The New Alpha, says there are four types of critics.
The haters: unsupportive and unhelpful. Avoid them like the plague. These people are haters and will only make you feel bad about yourself and what you’re doing. She says, “More often than not, they’re also people who’ve tried to implement some sort of change or improvement in their own life or work without success. The more similarities that exist between what you’re doing and what they’ve tried (and failed) to do, the more vicious they’ll be, since any success you have will remind them of their own failure.” Interestingly, they may even be people you’re friends with, but they are destructive. Avoid their feedback.
The affirmers: supportive, but unhelpful. These are the people who love and support you no matter what but aren’t really going to have any useful advice. These people are affirmers, and they’re awesome to have around. They can play an important role in terms of emotional support, but be mindful about relying on them too much for honest feedback.
The true criticizers: helpful, but unsupportive. These are generally smart people who can easily see holes and logical flaws in plans, and they have no trouble sharing them with you. However, they aren’t good at thinking about how to actually fix the problems they spot. They tend to have high analytical abilities but lower relationship skills. However, if you can take their negativity, they’ll often provide useful feedback
The coaches: supportive and helpful. These fantastic people are a rare breed, but you’ll know them when you find them because they’ll give great advice about how to push your work forward and overcome obstacles. Coaches also tend to be highly motivating, and they are empowering and inspiring. Their feedback is almost always the perfect blend of quality, honesty, empathy and kindness.
Coaches can be hard to find, and they tend to be very, very busy since so many people rely on them. So be gracious about their time if and when you reach out.
Carey Nieuwhof is one of the best general leaders around, in my opinion, and he knows how to handle the heat. He has given excellent guidance, that I try to follow, on the specifics of managing criticism.
Don’t under any circumstances respond in less than 24 hours. You need time to be calm so you can respond reasonably and rationally. You need time to think and pray about it. You may even want to talk to some wise friends who can help you. So wait. It can only help.
Ask yourself if there is any truth in the criticism. Sometimes there’s not, but often there is. Ask a colleague or friend; they may be able to see what your critic sees. Even a little truth can help you. Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, and our critics are great helpers there.
Own what you can. Don’t just look to your fans for validation. Try to understand what the critics are thinking. Try to understand why you upset them even if their reaction was hugely unreasonable. Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame.
Reply relationally, better than they did. Just because they handled themselves badly doesn’t mean you should. Andy Stanley gives this advice: Take your response to criticism up one level from how they corresponded with you. Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you. Example: If they emailed you, call them. You’ll not only shock them, but you’ll quickly diffuse the situation. People are bolder on email than they ever are in a conversation. Nothing good regarding conflict ever happens on email. If they stopped you in the hall and blasted you, take them out for coffee. Call them and tell them you would like to learn from them and address the issue in person. If they got mad at a meeting, go for lunch after. Nine times out of ten, you will immediately downgrade the conflict.
Throw away the trash. You might not even be the real reason for their upset. They may just be angry people or have just been in another situation and it is carrying over to you. Don’t assume that everyone who criticizes you is crazy or needs help. But sometimes good people say and do wrong things. When that happens, let it go. You’ve owned as much as you can of it, so let the rest fall away. Don’t carry today’s stuff into tomorrow.
Whatever you do, don’t let the critics win. You are here for a great purpose. Keep on keeping on with emotional health and motivation.