Leadership: Handle harsh criticism with grace
You will be a more effective leader if you can accept and learn from tough feedback.
Several years back, I received 360-degree feedback that was quite negative. I had considered myself to be reasonably effective with my team. So, the harshness of the feedback came as a surprise. Frankly, it hurt to read some of the comments. But as I reflected more, I realised that I had developed certain blind spots. And it mattered less whether the feedback was valid or not. If my behaviours or actions were creating certain perceptions within the team, I needed to fix it.
Criticism can be hard to handle, especially when you are on the receiving end. And it’s understandable. Leaders face an incredible amount of pressure as they juggle multiple high-stakes priorities: driving strong business performance, ensuring all stakeholders are happy, and keeping pace with mercurial market conditions. Long hours, working weekends, 24/7 connectivity and high stress become par for the course.
When one is doing their utmost, often at the cost of personal wellbeing, receiving harsh criticism can be a blow. Being challenged on strategy, tactics or decision-making feels personal and may trigger a variety of knee-jerk responses — defensiveness, combativeness, shutdown or the urge to “get back” at the person making the critique. As an article published on INC. notes:
Although leaders expect criticism and intellectually understand its value, science shows that differing views are deeply resented. Who wants a contrary opinion? You only want to hear, “You’re right!”
However, reacting defensively, ignoring the criticism, or behaving immaturely is unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst.
"As leaders, we must develop the ability to not just dole out but also accept tough criticism. If we refuse to see the possibility of error in our judgment, then we will be unable to learn, grow and course-correct — all three prerequisites for success in today’s business arena.
As leaders, we must develop the ability to not just dole out but also accept tough criticism. If we refuse to see the possibility of error in our judgment, then we will be unable to learn, grow and course-correct — all three prerequisites for success in today’s business arena.
So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can handle harsh criticism and the benefits of doing so. What steps can you take towards becoming more open to tough feedback?
The cost of criticism
Science shows us that likability is linked to an alignment in views. Consciously or unconsciously, leaders may resent, side line, or penalize those who offer dissenting opinions. As the INC. article mentioned above explains:
When an employee, investor, or client disagrees with you, it’s a neon red flag. Research shows you’ll like them less, rate them lower, and devalue their opinion — even if they’re an expert. Why? Because likability, or in this case ‘dislikability,’ is a stronger emotion than credibility.
This classic case of “shoot the messenger” is dangerous for both the business and the leader. We punish unwelcome opinions, and those who offer them, at our own peril. Seeing the repercussions of challenging the leader’s opinion, people become more guarded. Risks and mistakes are swept under the carpet, opportunities pass by unseized, and legitimate concerns from customers, employees and board members are overlooked. Needless to say, these factors can have serious consequences for the company — and the person at its helm.
How to handle tough criticism
Here are six suggestions for leaders to respond in a more constructive way to unpleasant feedback and divergent perspectives.
1. Expect criticism and de-personalize it.
As a leader, your decisions and actions are highly visible and subject to constant scrutiny by one and all. Given this, it is wise to accept criticism as part and parcel of the job. Remember, the judgments and reproaches directed at you are rarely personal. As the saying goes, “Take criticism seriously but not personally.” While this is certainly harder said than done, you need to have the stomach to deal with unpleasant words.
2. Be receptive.
Leaders are human. And to be human means we make mistakes. Taking feedback in the right spirit means listening, really Instead of instantly reacting with “fight, flight or freeze”, take a pause. Set your ego aside, access the logical part of your brain, and try to look at the issue objectively. Is it possible you made an error or overlooked something important? Could you and the business benefit from a shift in direction or a new perspective? Try and develop more self-awareness. Don’t be a victim. As a leader, you need to own it – both the glory and the criticism.
At its best and most productive, criticism offers an opportunity for curiosity and learning. Great leaders tend to be lifelong students, which makes them open to embracing new knowledge, switching gears, and exploring emerging possibilities. Ask yourself if the feedback being given to you is honest and constructive. If yes, use it to your advantage. If not, acknowledge it and move on.
3. Choose humility and empathy.
The response to criticism is often driven by pure instinct. You may feel stunned, embarrassed, betrayed, or ashamed, all of which can make you want to hide out or retreat behind a wall of silence. This avoidance, however, works against leaders and can make them appear guilty, uncaring, or even toxic.
Instead, as advised by a Harvard Business Review article on this topic, opt for a humble and empathetic response — especially when the feedback comes from your own team members or employees:
Whether caused by your actions or not, even unintentionally, the result is that people you lead are now frustrated, hurt, angry, and confused. Your job isn’t to determine whether those feelings are legitimate or not — your job is to demonstrate empathy for them, regardless of whether you think they’re warranted. Doing anything that conveys dismissiveness risks making people feel like you’re gaslighting them.
4. Respond calmly.
In this era of online outrage, leaders may find themselves at the receiving end of public condemnation, justified or otherwise. Unless it’s absolutely essential, resist the temptation to respond immediately or have a knee-jerk defensive reaction. Sleep over it. A social media furore can take on a life of its own, and a heated reaction from you will only feed the frenzy.
In such a scenario, a well-considered response is your best bet. If you feel you or your organisation have made a mistake, issue a genuine and thoughtful apology. If not, it may be helpful to refute the accusations with relevant facts. Either way, it’s important for leaders to understand that “fairness” is not to be expected. As the HBR piece mentioned above notes:
The cruel reality of leadership is that when things go wrong, you take a disproportionate amount of the blame… Remember, the farther people are from the problem, the less context and understanding they have. They will fill in the blanks with conjecture…and perceived motives for why you did what you did… Stay focused on solving the problem, responding to anyone who’s been harmed, and learning from what happened.
5. Protect your self-belief.
While it’s important for leaders to accept that they’re fallible, this realization shouldn’t take away from your belief in your own capabilities or your long-term vision for the business. Keep in mind that criticism is inevitable; it doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job. People in leadership positions make hundreds of far-reaching decisions every week, which means someone, somewhere, is bound to feel disappointed, upset, or angry at them.
So, even as they strive to take feedback in the right spirit, leaders must take care not to get side-tracked from their core purpose or start indulging in self-doubt. Take the lesson, if you think it’s valuable, then move forward with the same confidence that made you a leader in the first place.
6. Replenish your emotional reserves.
Even when leaders are open and receptive, this kind of feedback can take a toll on their emotional capacity. Over time, it could even make you cold, aloof, and hardened, the impact of which may extend far beyond the workplace. Strengthen your emotional resilience in whatever way works best for you.
Even the most well-intentioned leaders can be thrown off balance by criticism. Being challenged or censured might make you feel angry, hurt, or threatened — all instinctive, natural responses. It is crucial, however, to develop the ability to handle harsh feedback, which often presents an opportunity for improvement and innovation. As leaders, our goal should be to glean valuable learnings from criticism, without letting it impact our core convictions, values and sense of self-worth.