So you signed up for leadership, but you didn’t really sign up for all the criticism that came with it, did you?
And yet here you are.
Next question: did anything really prepare you for the emotional journey of leadership?
Nope. Me neither.
Criticism is an almost daily staple for most leaders. You get everything from side comments, to direct challenges, to people who walk out the door, to anonymous notes sent to you by people with no courage.
You dread it. I dread it. Who doesn’t?
In fact, it can completely derail your day, your week, and your work.
I can’t tell you how many times I have a completely sarcastic, immature and emotional response ready for my critics as soon as they sting me.
And, of course, it’s a horrendous mistake to ever let those comments see daylight. But in my head, it’s so easy to take revenge.
So what do you do when it comes your way?
It’s easy to dream about working in a place where no one criticizes anyone.
And, as a result, more than a few leaders have left their current job find greener pastures where there won’t be as much opposition, only to be disappointed that criticism just seems to come with the territory wherever you go.
Ditto with starting your own venture. As long as you have customers and staff, you’ll have critics.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some toxic workplaces and there are definitely some toxic people. And there are healthy workplaces and healthy people.
But even in a healthy environment, criticism is inevitable.
So can you avoid criticism? Well, the best way to avoid significant critics is to do nothing significant.
But then all you end up with is regret.
So how do you deal with the criticism that will inevitably come your way?
How To Handle Your Critics Like a Pro
The basic problem for me personally with criticism? Honestly, it makes me want to respond like a toddler would.
Criticism naturally makes me defend, deny, and if I’m having a bad day, it also makes me want to retaliate.
None of that is good.
And if you study leaders who don’t do well in the long run, they almost always tend to respond to critics with immaturity.
This is where emotional intelligence can be a leader’s best friend. And the good news is, emotional intelligence can be learned (here, for example, are 5 EI hacks that can help you grow as a leader).
1. Don’t Respond For 24 Hours. Just Don’t.
Every time you get a critical email, a critical comment, a critical text or phone call, something happens inside you, doesn’t it?
Your heart starts beating faster. You feel hurt, even crushed depending on what they said. And sometimes you get angry.
And usually, when that happens, your emotions derail your brain. At least they derail mine.
I learned years ago almost nothing good happens when I’m upset.
In an attempt to address the situation, I almost always make it worse. Even if I convince myself I’ll make it better, I usually don’t. Not when I’m upset.
So years ago, I made a rule. When you feel an emotional reaction to criticism, don’t respond for 24 hours.
That’s easy in the case of an email, a text or written complaint. Just sleep on it.
But even when there’s a verbal exchange, just bite your tongue. Thank them. Say little or nothing. Don’t respond.
After 24 hours elapses, something amazing usually happens. You get your brain back.
A day later, you can respond reasonably and rationally to something that you once could only respond to emotionally.
You’ve slept on it. Hopefully, you’ve prayed about it. And maybe you’ve even talked to a few wise friends about how to respond with grace and integrity.
You’ve lost nothing.
And you’ve gained so much.
So wait. Just wait.
2. Ask Yourself: Is There Any Truth In This?
During those 24 hours, you can start asking sensible questions, the chief of which is “Is there any truth in this?”
Sometimes there’s not. But often there is.
If you’re not sure, ask a friend or colleague. They may see what your critic sees.
Even if there’s just a nugget of truth, that nugget can help you grow into a better person and better leader. I had a situation recently where someone criticized some talks I gave. At first, I was completely defensive. Fortunately, I said nothing and didn’t respond. But the next day, after a good night’s sleep and some prayer, I realized they might be right about something. So I gave them that.
Other people loved the talks, but that doesn’t mean that his experience wasn’t valid. And when I looked in my heart on a good day, I saw something that the critic likely picked up on.
It made me a better leader because I became aware of something that would have been so easy to dismiss and blow off.
Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, and our critics help us become more self-aware.
Even if there’s zero truth in what the critic is saying, at least you searched. And by asking, you lost nothing.
And…there’s usually truth in what a critic is saying. But often it takes time to see it. So give yourself time.
3. Own What You Can
Own whatever part of the issue you can. Even if they’re only 1% right.
And resist the temptation to look to your fans to make you feel better.
If someone was offended by what you said, try to understand why. Own that piece, even if their reaction to what you did was a terrible overreaction.
Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame.
So, become a great leader, especially when it comes to criticism.
4. Reply Relationally
Just because they shot off an email in the dark of night doesn’t mean you should.
Nor should you send out a passive-aggressive social post. That’s the last thing the internet or the world needs.
I learned this strategy from Andy Stanley and have followed it ever since.
Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you.
- 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.
9 times out of 10, you will take the air out of the conflict balloon. And if they’re healthy, and you own whatever you can, you’ll be surprised at how it resolves the situation.
5. Discard The Crud
Even if you find some truth in what they said, own what you can and reply graciously and relationally, sometimes there’s still crud in the mix.
Here’s my theory: 95% of the conflict in your organization has nothing to do with your organization.
Your critic might have just had a huge fight with his daughter before he sat down at the keyboard to blast you. Your critic might simply be an angry person who has issues stapled to her issues. And you got an unfair shot. Or he may be someone who’s simply angry at the world.
We can’t make the assumption that all our critics are crazy, frustrated or need counseling. That’s an easy crutch too many leaders lean on.
But sometimes good people say and do bad things.
And sometimes the blast comes with zero basis in reality.
When that happens, you need to let the crud go. You’ve owned as much as you can of it, so let the rest fall away.
Pray about it. Talk to friends about it. Grieve the hurt (seriously…do this) and then let it go.
Don’t carry today’s baggage into tomorrow.
What Are You Learning?
I’ve found that by following these steps, I also end up doing better than I would if I acted in the moment.
I’d love to hear what you’re learning in this.
Leave a comment!