Criticism comes your way almost every day if you’re in leadership.
The guy in the back row didn’t like your last message. Another person wonders what all you people in ministry actually do with your time.
Someone you barely know leaves a snarky remark on your Facebook. A pseudonymous troll leaves a scathing comment on your blog. Or a colleague pulls you aside to comment on the way you handled the last meeting.
Like me, you probably live under the false hope that you can lead in a way that will lead to universal approval. You live with the faint hope that you can be clever enough, faithful enough and deft enough to avoid the critics.
And you’d be wrong.
Actually, there’s only one way to avoid criticism in your life: do nothing significant.
As soon as you do something significant—in other words, as soon as you begin to lead—you’ll draw critics.
Do anything significant and the critics will come running.
So how do you handle the critics without losing your mind, your temper or getting so discouraged that you pack it in?
How To Tackle Your Critics
In all likelihood, your natural responses to criticism and critics will be unhealthy. At least my natural responses are.
Here are 5 ways to tackle your critics and the criticism that comes your way.
1. Don’t let the critics crush your heart
The biggest challenge I have is not letting criticism go to my heart.
Almost by default, when someone criticizes what I’ve done, I take it personally. Too personally.
I let the critic deflate whatever amount of air was left in the balloon. I ignore all the encouragement that has come my way and obsess over the complaint.
Chances are your reaction is the same.
You’ve likely never lost sleep because you were overwhelmed with compliments. But you have lost sleep because of one measly complaint.
As Tim Keller has said, when our identity is wrapped up in our work, success goes to our heads and failure goes to our heart.
As I outlined in this post, leaders should always take leadership seriously, but not too personally.
What you do is not who you are. Your calling is not your identity.
When you get that right…your heart stays healthier in leadership.
And it’s so important to keep your heart alive and beating for the mission to which you’re called.
When you lose heart, you lose hope. And when you lose hope, you stop leading.
So guard your heart.
2. Look for any truth
If you can avoid the heart-crush that comes with criticism, you’ll be able to grow from it.
I had to train myself to do this, but these days I look for any truth that might be present in a critic’s comments.
If you can get past your instinctive tendency to defend, rebut and dismiss criticism, you’ll grow from it.
Maybe your sermon wasn’t horrible, but perhaps you weren’t as clear as you might have been.
Maybe you weren’t quite as ineffective in the meeting as your colleague said you were, but perhaps you could have done better.
Look for the truth, even in the most scathing criticism. Even pray that God would show you the truth.
If you want to grow as a leader and a person, analyzing criticism for truth can help immensely.
If you want some tips on responding to your critics directly, I share my top 5 tips for having a critical, conflicted conversation here. All 5 skills are transferable to directly responding to a critic.
3. Have an honest conversation with someone who’s for you
Many leaders suffer from mirror-distortion syndrome. What’s that?
Well you know when you look in the mirror and you’re actually thin but you’re convinced you’re fat, or you’re actually overweight but you’re convinced you’re thin? Few of us have accurate self-perceptions.
That’s why great friends who are for us are so helpful.
You may or may not be able to spot the truth in a critic’s comment, but a good friend can do it for you.
Instead of starting with a question like “Hey did you think I was overbearing in that meeting?” (which would cause them to defend you), start with an open question like “How did that meeting go in your view?” Then part way through the conversation ask more specific questions about how you behaved, and tell them you’re open and listening because you want to grow.
Guess what will happen?
The most valuable people around a leader are never people who tell you what you want to hear; they’re the people who tell you what you need to hear—in love.
4. Consider the source
Not all criticism is created equal.
Getting blasted on line by some anonymous troll living his mother’s basement is not the same as having a respected leader who knows you offering some feedback.
If you’re getting critiqued by a well-informed critic, listen up. Respectfully. Be thankful. That person has just made you a better leader, a better person and likely a stronger Christ-follower (teachability is a key characteristic of discipleship).
So what about the trolls, the constant complainers and the cheap shots people love to take?
You have to be careful with what I outline below, but I’ve found this line of thinking…. helpful.
Here we go: Often, people doing something significant with their lives get criticized by people doing nothing significant with theirs.
Why is it that people who have accomplished very little with their lives are completely convinced they can run a multibillion dollar business far better than the CEO? Or their favourite pro team better than their coach? Or the nation better than anyone? (To which I always say, then get off your couch and do something with your life.)
Criticism is always easier than contribution.
And leadership means contributing, not just criticizing.
Theodore Roosevelt said it so well over a century ago:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
When you get discouraged, just remember: people doing something significant are most often criticized by people doing nothing significant with theirs.
5. Humbly move on
What do you have an easier time remembering, the last compliment you received or the last criticism? Exactly.
Criticism can linger inside you for far longer than it needs to.
You need to move on, humbly.
Once you have extracted all the truth you can from a situation, processed it with a friend who is for you and prayed about it, it’s time to move on.
You’re stronger. You’re better. Hopefully, you’re wiser.
Let it go. You’ve learned. Now it’s time to lead.
What Are You Learning?
What are you learning about handling critics and criticism?
If you want more, I have an entire chapter on becoming a healthier leader in my new book, Lasting Impact, 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow. You can pick up a copy here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Scroll down and leave a comment!