Leaders are called to make tough decisions, lead change and navigate unknown territory. As we do this, any leader who is in action is destined to have SOME criticism from their team, customers, family, peers, etc. As it is frequently said, “Everyone has an opinion.” The challenge for leaders is to know how to respond, especially when the opinion is a critical one. Sometimes it is constructive criticism and someone’s note, but a leader does better when they are able to respond and navigate any kind of criticism.
Wise people have learned how to handle criticism. They deal with it like any other feedback, calmly and judiciously. They try and see how they can use it to get ahead and meet their goals. Many people, however; find it hard not to react defensively or angrily. Some people even launch a counterattack and shift the blame to the critic. We sometimes refer to this as getting “SCARFED” (check out other articles on that). This behavior is not effective and does not help things get done; it just snowballs into conflict and standoffs. Criticism is a fact of life, and the sooner you learn to handle it positively, the better you can use that feedback for your own success.
Before you React – Stop!
You will feel the reaction in your body before you can get the words out. And that is where you must stop. Don’t do anything, just breathe and take a moment to calm your defenses. Chances are, the other person won’t notice a thing, but it will give you time to compose yourself.
Remind Yourself that This is Feedback
Your composure time gives you a chance to remember that this criticism is an opportunity to learn something, possibly something valuable. Say to yourself, “This is not personal,” and repeat it as often as you need to until your initial reaction has passed. Focus more on what you can learn, this will shift your brain to the frontal lobe and solution solving rather than your limbic system where your emotions are firing off. Feedback can be used on many levels and used to ask yourself questions like:
- What is this telling me is important to this person?
- What information does this person need that they don’t have?
- What is this person reacting to themselves?
- What is the gap between where they are and what I see?
- How might I close that gap?
- What is really important here?
- What is it that they want and need?
- What might be a win-win?
Practice Your Active Listening
Feedback time is not a time to talk, it’s a time to listen. Try to understand what the other person is saying. Maybe it’s an aspect of your project or goal that you haven’t thought of yet. What initially feels like criticism may offer valuable insight. Repeat back what you heard and seek clarification if you need to. This is not a time to analyze or push back, it’s a time to understand precisely what is being said. As you listen, you might say something like:
- What I hear you saying is ……
- When I do ___________, you feel _______________
- Let me make sure I am what you are saying, you feel __________
- Am I understanding correctly?
- Is there anything I might be missing?
Thank Your Critic
Even if it makes you cringe inside, say thank you for the feedback. It is said that even if you don’t agree, there is at least 10% truth or 10% responsibility you can take. You don’t have to agree with what they’ve said to be sincerely appreciative of the input. After all, they took the time to say what they thought and give you some advice. It is useful to keep open and honest communication. The point is there is a gap and a misunderstanding. Your common goal is to get on the same page. You can share that while thanking them. “Our goal is to be on the same page and work well together; I really appreciate you sharing this so we can do that better.”
When people take a risk to share their thoughts (even when negative), it is an effort to have a better relationship. It is true many people can improve in giving contributive criticism and feedback, but try to stay on the high road so things can move forward and the win-win can be found rather than regressing to potshots and tug-a-wars.
Process the Feedback
You may need some time to do this, or you might be able to do it on the spot. If your emotions are running high, it’s probably better to take a break and come back to deal with what has been said. Otherwise, it’s fine to ask questions to clarify the feedback, and maybe seek their suggestions on how to move forward. Either way, you want to walk away from the conversation with an agreement about the next step. This might sound like”
- Give yourself time to think: I need to reflect on what you said and how we might do this differently. Can I think about this today and follow up with you before the end of the day tomorrow?
- Collaborate: I hear that you are not getting the information you need, would you be willing to meet with me and let’s brainstorm a few ways we could upgrade our communication process?
- Offer a solution: I hear you are not getting the information you need and I need to communicate more, would it be helpful if I send a weekly state of the union?
- Delegate: I understand that getting information is very important and I have not gotten it to you like you need it. Would you be willing to make a list of what topics are most important and three suggestions of ways I might communicate with you better?
- Co-design: I understand we have been busy and that has resulted in you feeling in the dark and not getting the information you need. Would it be helpful if we put our weekly 1-1 back on the calendar for a consistent day and time?
Move the action forward.
Feedback is given with the hopes of change and action. When it is fought, it creates hopelessness and shut down. When it is received but there is not action, it teaches people it doesn’t matter and to not share. To listen, receive and respond to feedback is key.
Again, you might not agree with everything, but seek to understand where they are coming from and what they need. Often it is a SCARF assurance…which means an assurance of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness. Seek to find the win-win so you can move things forward. It is really not about criticism, it is about the relationships and being “in flow.”
Criticism happens when it feels like there is a lid, barrier, or frustration in the way of “flow.” Our job as leaders is to keep things moving, empower people and remove obstacles. Criticism is a gift to be alerted of barriers your team is experiencing and an opportunity to clear the path and get them moving toward success.