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Deal With Criticism

This article is by Christine M. Riordan, the dean and a professor of management at the Daniels College of Business.

We rarely discuss dealing with criticism as a necessary part of leadership. Yet the reality is that every leader, whether chief executive, politician, sports coach, or first-time supervisor, will experience criticism. We must understand that it is inevitable, and we have to learn to deal with it productively rather than let it be harmful.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Denice D. Denton came under fire immediately and often during her 16-month tenure as chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, which ended with her apparent suicide in 2006. . . . In addition to the harsh criticism, which came from the typical antagonists of public-university leaders—student activists, employee unions, alumni, state lawmakers—the chancellor was a pariah to some conservative bloggers as well. The denunciations were often deeply personal.”

I have interviewed senior level leaders across industries about challenges they faced, and one common issue they’ve described is how criticism comes with their jobs. Their decisions are regularly subjected to review and secondary analysis from others, and those others are not always aware of the processes, input, complexity, and underlying choices involved. They find that there is more scrutiny of leaders than ever before, and it becomes more intense as they move up the ladder. Also, they tend to have fewer people from whom to seek counsel as they advance. Sharon McShurley reflected on her time as mayor of Muncie, Indiana: “There were many days I felt lonely at the top . . . when we first came into office, I would say the first six months, it seemed like every day somebody was lobbing a grenade at us.”

Many executives have said they’ve sometimes learned from criticism, and they’ve stressed the importance of thinking through situations and devising ways to make use of constructive feedback. One approach is to look for common ideas in criticism. If similar themes keep emerging, there is more likely truth in the complaints. Executives have also emphasized getting in front of criticism, and research has shown the effectiveness of seeking feedback opportunities rather than avoiding them, and approaching negative situations without aversion.

I’ve heard executives describe reacting to criticism with insomnia, stress, anxiety, pain, and anger. It has diverted their energy from important tasks, affected their family lives, and made them wary about who to trust. They’ve consistently said they’ve needed to figure out strategies for not internalizing or personalizing criticism too much.

Research indicates that maintaining a positive perspective and a lack of cynicism helps you receive and use negative feedback productively. Additionally, introspection and self-reflection enable you to more accurately assess criticism. Self-confidence, drive, openness to experience, and conscientiousness also help. Finally, research indicates that people more readily accept criticism when they feel that how they receive it is fair.

There are several coping strategies that work for many people. Here is a brief snapshot of strategies I’ve heard executives recommend:

1. Feel the emotions, and then get over them. Criticism naturally stings, but successful people tend to recognize the emotions and then move forward in a positive way. They don’t dwell on the hurt. Many know the criticism is coming and prepare for it. Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane told a local newspaper that his 2012 New Year’s resolution was: “I want to continue working on avoiding overreaction to criticism—and I have to keep reminding myself to remain calm and listen.”

2. Build a support network inside and outside of work.  All the executives I’ve interviewed had large support networks, particularly outside the organization. Recent research has confirmed the importance of non-work relationships, which can offer care, acceptance, additional feedback, perspective, and consolation. Executives also note the importance of seeking advice and support from key stakeholders.

3. Be self-aware. Many executives indicate that they’ve worked actively on their self-awareness. Doing so helps them understand others’ perspectives and limits their own defensiveness. Research has shown that self-aware people rate themselves more accurately in performance assessments than those low in self-awareness. Research has also shown that they create a more positive organizational climate and relate better to others.

4. Serve a higher purpose.  A deep belief that they serve a higher purpose, such as the good of the organization, has helped many executives weather strong criticism.

5. Maintain a sense of humor. Executives have mentioned that merriment can relieve the stress of being in a difficult high-profile situation, so they laugh and joke a lot.

Finally, the executives give two important warnings.  First, while it is necessary and important to develop a thicker skin, you should not become so resistant that you ignore valid lessons or fail to recognize a need for change.  Second, do not let criticism dampen your passion for a laudable objective. Successful leaders typically combine passion with courage and a steadfast dedication to achieving results, no matter the challenges.

Leadership in today’s intense environment is not for the faint of heart, but as Elbert Hubbard noted, “The final proof of greatness is being able to endure criticism without resentment.”

Originally posted on Forbes.com on how to deal with really tough criticism, written for people who are business leaders.

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