How Leaders Can Get the Most from Criticism

How Leaders Can Get the Most from Criticism

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.

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.”

Your Turn:

Leave us a comment and share: How do you get the most out of criticism without letting it paralyze you? 


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leadership tips managing emotions

Frustrated or Focused – Leadership Tips for Managing Emotions

“David, I know I shouldn’t take this personally, but I’m so frustrated and I just want to yell at my team and walk away. I need help managing emotions or I’m going to have a meltdown.”

Amanda is a team leader for an international clothing producer. She loves her work, finds it inspiring, and she cares deeply about her people and the quality work they do. Like many leaders, however, her passion has turned to frustration as she struggles with managing emotions.

Leadership is challenging. Things never go exactly according to plan, disappointments creep up where you don’t expect them, and people can be erratic. Leading means you’ve got to deal with the human element.

If you’re going to succeed over time and achieve breakthrough results that last, you can’t walk around stressed out and frustrated all the time. You’ll break down or you’ll lash out at your team. Either way, your credibility suffers.

6 Steps for Managing Emotions

Recently one of our workshop participants mentioned a manager who said, “I’m here to manage results, not manage emotions.” Frankly, I think that statement is naïve, dangerous, and self-sabotaging. Managing emotions, starting with your own, is a critical leadership skill. Here are six ways to help you stay grounded and manage your emotions:

1. De-personalize issues.

Like many leaders, Amanda was taking her team’s behavior personally. She was basically saying, “How can they do this to me?” But here’s the thing: another person’s behavior is almost never about you. They are living their life, trying to do the best they can with what they have. They didn’t wake up that morning thinking about the best way to anger you.

In short: You are not the center of anyone else’s universe. (Unless you have a dog – then you’re totally the center of their world.) De-personalize the issue by recognizing that this isn’t about you. You need to lead through it, but it’s not about you.

2. Name your feelings.

This is a powerful way to lessen the grip of powerful emotions. When you realize you’re feeling tense, upset, tight, or can’t breathe, take a moment and try to name the feeling. Eg: I’m feeling scared, I’m feeling frustrated, or I’m feeling sad.

Your emotions are there for a reason. They’re like a warning siren calling for attention. When you ignore them or try to push them away, they turn up the volume. Over time, consistently ignoring them can do serious damage. But when you name it, it’s like you’ve acknowledged the warning call by saying “I see you – thanks for alerting me.” Just naming the feeling helps it to move through you and loosen its grip.

3. Apple catching (choose what you allow in.)

Imagine someone tossed an apple to you. You would not catch the apple with your mouth, immediately chew it up, and swallow it. You would catch the apple, inspect it, and then decide if and when you want to eat it.

Feedback is the same way. Don’t automatically internalize every bit of feedback you receive. If a 4-year-old stomped their foot and said “I don’t like you very much” it probably wouldn’t offend you.

But have a 44-year-old colleague say those same words and many people automatically take offense. They swallow that feedback without first evaluating it and whether or not it has something useful for them.

4. Get perspective.

Imagine holding a penny right in front of your eye. It blocks out your entire vision. Even if there is a huge mountain right in front of you, you won’t be able to see it because that small penny is consuming your vision. Move the penny farther away from you – get it back in proper perspective and it no longer blocks your vision.

Leadership problems and frustrations are often similar. You care, you devote so much of yourself to your work, so of course, the problems seem huge. But without perspective, it’s often impossible to find the healthiest solutions.

What helps you restore your perspective? For me, it is nature, sunsets, stars, forests, rivers, and mountains that remind me that this is a small problem in a very large universe. Time with family and friends restores my value of what matters most in life and gives me the energy and reserves to tackle the challenges I’m facing. Moving your body helps – a short walk, run, or bike ride can do wonders and give your mind time to process and work through what you’re feeling.

5. Give yourself room to feel.

You’re a human being and those emotions that have you in their grip are there for a reason. Anger is a sign that something’s wrong. Sadness is an acknowledgment of loss. Fear is a normal feeling when faced with the unknown. It’s okay to have these feelings. You can’t erase them. Rather than ignore them or fight them, acknowledge them and allow yourself a moment to feel. This doesn’t mean you’ll wallow in them or stay stuck.

When that promotion doesn’t happen or your team lets you down, give yourself time – maybe an hour or even a day or two to feel sad. Then move forward. Let the emotion do the work it needs to.

6. Move to “How can I…?”

After you acknowledge your feelings, it’s time to figure out what comes next. One of the best ways to do this is to ask yourself a “How can I?” question. For example, if you didn’t get a promotion, ask “How can I better position myself for the next opportunity?” When your team lets you down, ask “How can I ensure they are able to do what needs to happen the next time?” Maybe you need to clarify what success looks like or have an overdue INSPIRE conversation.

Moving to a “How can I?” question re-empowers you and produces positive energy. Don’t move to this step without first identifying what you’re feeling or you may ask the wrong “How can I?” question.

Your Turn

When you’re feeling more frustrated than focused, remember that your feelings have a job to do. At the same time, if you don’t develop the skills for managing emotions, they can also cripple your leadership. Effective leaders lead themselves first. They acknowledge their own humanity and lead their team through theirs.

Leave us a comment and share: What is your best strategy for managing emotions at work?

PS: If you’re unable to cope with your emotions over time – whether it’s depression, rage, or anxiety, please seek the help of your doctor or a mental health professional. Your mental health is every bit as real a need as your physical health – take care of yourself.


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