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How Leaders Can Get the Most from Criticism

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Criticism: Gift or Garbage?

“David, I hear what you’re saying about getting the feedback you need to make good decisions. I get it – I really do. But my problem isn’t getting enough feedback. I get too much. Everybody has an opinion and sometimes the criticism is overwhelming.”

I’d just finished delivering a keynote for a group of senior leaders and their managers. Elise had waited until her team headed downstairs to happy hour and appetizers, then came up to ask me a question.

She continued: “If I ignore it, they think I don’t care, but I can’t possibly make everyone happy and I know that’s not my job. I feel stuck.”

Too often, leaders take criticism or negative feedback and either ignore it (at the cost of their credibility) or overreact to it and paralyze themselves.

Critical feedback can be a gift, but it’s how you use that gift that makes the difference.

Related: Frustrated or Focused: 6 Tips for Managing Emotions

10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Criticism

1) Be aware of your emotions.

Critical feedback is never pleasant, but it doesn’t have to ruin your day. You’re responsible for your emotions. Manage your emotions, get perspective, and then consider the value (or lack of it) in what you heard. Remember that if you’re moving things forward and making a difference, you will tick people off, and they may be critical of you for all the right reasons.

2) Look for patterns.

If one person says it, file it. If two people say it, pay attention. If three or more people have the same feedback, it’s time to take it seriously. The pattern doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong – it could be that or could be that there’s some additional information they need, or that you need to clarify who owns a decision, or clarify the MIT.

3) Ask why.

Some feedback is given only for the benefit of the critic. They enjoy feeling superior to others by cutting them down. If you suspect you’re receiving this kind of criticism, ask them why they’re sharing. When they respond defensively, it’s usually a sign their feedback was more about them than it was for genuinely helping you.

4) Look for causes.

People often complain about symptoms. They may not recognize or even be aware of the underlying causes. Look beneath the criticism for a valid cause – something that would be worth paying attention to.

5) Be curious.

Listen with the intent of hearing and allowing truth to influence you. Even if the person’s feedback doesn’t apply in the way they intended, the fact that you listened and valued what they had to say builds your credibility and influence.

6) Test it.

If you suspect there is a valuable perspective in what you’ve heard, check in with your truth-tellers, mentors, and coach. Let them know what you’ve heard and that you’d like their honest perspective.

7) Show gratitude.

If someone shares a difficult truth with you, thank them. They’ve done you a favor. Caring truth-tellers are rare. Cherish them.

8) Ignore it.

Imagine what a mess it would be if authors, movie directors, and restaurant managers tried to react to every critical review they receive. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone (and some people don’t want to be satisfied – they just criticize to be noticed.)

9) Respond where you can.

When it makes sense, it’s consistent with your values, and in line with your mission, be clear about how you are responding to the feedback you receive. And if something prevents you from responding, be clear about that too.

10) Move on.

You’re not perfect. You’re not going to be. Learn and apply what you can, then move on.

When it comes to dealing with criticism, one of my favorite quotes comes from Abraham Lincoln:

“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.”

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