August 19, 2009 Chris Fuller

Essential Items: Handling Criticism

It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize. It doesn’t take much to sit in your living room or in a control booth and “Armchair Quarterback” the decisions and actions of those in the race.

If I haven’t said it out loud to someone – this is certainly how I’ve felt., ” throw on the parka, build the team, qualify for the race, start running 1100 miles in -50⁰ F and then we’ll talk.”

A leader takes many hits and some of the most difficult to take are when those you are leading start criticizing your actions, your leadership, or your personhood.

In the studies that Goleman has conducted on EQ (Emotional Intelligence) the findings revealed that a leader’s EQ is a greater predictor of their success than IQ. I believe it is a fairly easy result for us to buy into – after all, don’t most of us know people who are incredibly book smart and yet lack the ‘people skills’ necessary to be a success – and I want to unpack that as it relates to handling criticism.

Emotional strength is critical in leadership – in my mind it is one of those essential items – it supports perseverance and is foundational to pulling us through the inevitable ‘rough spots’ on our leadership trail. When it comes to handling criticism – we have two choices – shut down and build the wall or process what’s being said.

So let’s walk through a few steps that may help put criticism in perspective:

  1. It’s going to happen

    It is a fact of leadership that you are going to be criticized. It doesn’t feel fair and it doesn’t seem right – you’re the one giving your guts for the company and the team and someone has the nerve to stand there and criticize! And you want to react and say, “If you can do a better job – be my guest!” Another fact is: if you don’t want or can’t handle criticism, don’t be a leader! As the saying goes, “The only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, attempt nothing, and ultimately, be nothing.” Leaders are targets because we’re out front and once we realize that criticism is part of being in this ‘race’ then we can learn to process it and use it for our growth or discard it.

  2. Consider the Critic

    Some people criticize out of pure motives and others have an agenda. There are a number of quotes that have served me well – “Hurting people, hurt people.”, “Crabs will pull others down that try to get out of the basket”, “You can tell a person by the words they speak”. People will criticize because they aren’t happy in life and don’t want others to be either, because of jealousy, insecurity, or the desire to keep the status quo. Knowing the source will help you to know which to really consider and use for growth and which to moderate. If they have been in the race, mushed their own team, and have your respect – it’s much easier to accept!

  3. Consider the Critique

    Consider that even though the source isn’t credible there still may be some truth in their statements. Take the time to sift through all of the extra ‘stuff’ and get down to the real meat of the criticism. One of my mentors would say, “Eat the meat, spit out the bones!” We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses – if this falls into one of the areas of your weaknesses – then so be it! We all need to learn – we all need to grow – this is just lighting up a spot on the trail that you may not have seen before – or you may be in a place that you’ve never been before and you need this knowledge to be able to qualify for the next race ahead! No one is perfect – life and leadership are growth experiences!

  4. Seek an outside, trusted perspective

    If the criticism came from a trusted advisor, coach, or friend that we knew had our best interests at heart – we would take that in and grow accordingly. Start to find or build a network around you of those that you can present the information to and that will give you appropriate feedback. If they are unwilling or unable to be open, honest, AND supportive – you need to find new counsel. Use that as a guide – find people you can trust that will give you open, honest, and supportive counsel.

  5. Grow where needed (E-valuate and E-volve)

    Some people spend years developing their technical expertise or their educational advantage and somehow they think that ‘Relational Skills’ are a take it or leave it proposal – my team just needs to ‘accept me as I am’. If the criticism centers on your relational connectivity as a leader – realize that you may need to spend as much time on your relational skill set (EQ) as you did on your IQ or TQ (Technical Competence). Where ever the area of growth – hunger for improvement and keep it in perspective – we ALL have areas where we need to grow.

  6. Keep on mushing!

    You’ve come too far to turn back now – don’t allow nay-sayers and discouragers to keep you from your destiny – you started this race and you can finish it! You are on the trail to something great and when you get there – all of the little ‘bumps and bruises’ along the way will seem insignificant.

I believe in you – you can do this – let me leave you with a great quote from Fred Smith: “No one ever erected a statue to a critic.”

Mush on!

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