Not all critics are created equal and leaders treat criticism (and critics) unequally.
Straight off, I ignore any unsigned or anonymous criticism. I bin it without a second thought. Why? Because I believe in talking TO and not ABOUT. If you don’t have the decency and maturity to reach out privately with an intent to strengthen and restore, then I choose to ignore it. Conversely, if you front up in person, with a sense of collegiality, in the hope of an outcome that benefits everyone concerned then I will give you a hearing, even if it’s hard for both of us, even if it’s not the conversation or the outcome we were both hoping for. If we look at each other in the eye and listen to our intent, we have a better chance of making progress than any cowardly keyboard warrior will ever have.
For leaders, criticism is a given. Some of it warranted, much of it not. In my experience, most criticism says more about WHO it came from rather than WHAT it is about. That said, criticism can be the catalyst for a significant change of personal, national and even global scales. The wisdom in handling criticism is finding the wisdom IN the criticism.
Let me repeat that. The wisdom in handling criticism is finding the wisdom IN the criticism.
Given that criticism is a guarantee the critical role for leaders is to have a process to navigate it, you can’t stop it, and at times, you can’t ignore it. So having a game plan to assess, learn, and if required, respond, to the issues wisely and move forward graciously and intelligently.
Leveraging the Wisdom and Criticism model below we can see that criticism is about four big things:
- Who – What is the nature of the relationship you have to the critic and the criticism?
- What – What was the criticism about and for what purpose were you criticised?
- Why – What heart posture or motive was the criticism or critic intending?
- How – Was the criticism private or public? The environment influences the message.
The thing is some criticism is flat out valid, and as a leader, our job is to humbly accept it, learn the lessons from it and make the changes because of it. Missing that is missing a prize gift on the road of life. How can you do that well?
Wisdom and Criticism Model
Wisdom and Criticism Model – Explained
Consider the critic. Origin affects volume.
For what purpose would this criticism be levelled at you? Does it come from someone who has your best interests at heart or someone with something to gain from this, or even nursing their own hurt? Ancient wisdom says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” The courageous feedback of a friend can be a lifesaver when it comes to leadership development, character formation, and ongoing influence.
I was speaking with a friend some time ago about some engagement they had on social media that I disagreed with and I wanted to understand where they were coming from. When you have a relationship, you have both the authority and opportunity to speak to the matter. Outside of that its just an opinion. Conversely, I’ve had to phone up the keyboard critics and invite them to meet face to face after they let their emotions go ahead of their wisdom and their personal hurts become a public issue. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by that behaviour.
If they’re a friend, then lean in humbly. If they are not, then distance yourself quickly.
Consider the reasons. Building up and tearing down are VERY different motives.
Consider the content of the criticism. Was it meant to be constructive or destructive? Again, it’s the two-edged sword of social media. The upside is a message can go viral and have a way bigger impact than originally intended. The downside is that a message can go viral and have a way bigger impact :))
My Dad taught me to ask this question in the face of criticism. “What exactly do you want to get from this?” It could be that the critic wants a good thing and they are going about it the wrong way. Straight up you discover do they want to build up and strengthen or tear down and damage. At that specific point, you can make a decision on how you engage moving forward. Learn from the experience and process it in a healthy way.
Work out what the heart motivations are. Attachment to the wrong thing hurts you.
Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. Hanging onto the broken words and selfish motivations of others will only hurt and harm you. Attachment to the wrong things will weigh you down and damage your soul. No one person’s words are worth that damage to your leadership. Words are powerful, they can create a future and fill people with hope and opportunity. They can also diminish a person’s identity and confidence. Critical words spoken to you or about you have the power to hold you back from becoming your best self. They sink deeply into your soul and challenge your identity in a way that can take considerable time to recover from.
A better approach is to assess as quickly as possible the motivation of your critic. If it is to harm them give it as little airtime as possible. Many years ago an indirect piece of criticism was placed in the social media world referring to me and decisions I had made. It was so clever, obviously reflecting on the situation, didn’t name anyone, positioned themselves as the victims (when they were in fact not) It was like hitting the passive aggressive online jackpot. So I challenged the individual; I contacted the most vocal keyboard warriors and moved on. My best advice? Let it go. Fires die out without wood, arguments die out without words and criticism goes away when it slowly disappears down the newsfeed. Here today, gone tomorrow literally.
When the reason for criticising you is selfish and destructive it might just be better to let it go and process what you need to process in private.
Process the platform used by your critic. Public criticism rarely gets the job done.
In my experience, very very few matters ought to be resolved to the public arena. By public, I mean social media and wider. There is nothing to be gained by being a keyboard warrior, in fact, I believe it’s largely cowardice empowered by the reach and frequency we have access to online. Leaders, use your platform with discretion and wisdom. The more mature and more courageous act is to own your part of the problem and go humbly and directly and privately to the person with the intent of renewal and transformation. To resolve privately, deepen a relationship, and frankly contain the impact of the hurt is better for everybody.
What I’m not referring to is matters of legal or ethical violations. I am not referring to royal commissions, child safety or anything so damaging and heinous. I am not suggesting we all use Twitter as a global and nationalistic tool of persuasion. I am referring to the 99% of everyday rough and tumble we are part of as leaders. Decisions, relationships, communication, and culture can all be damaged or leveraged based on how mature we are when giving and receiving criticism. Be the leader who does this wisely.
Handling criticism is like sitting on a three-legged stool. You must balance what is said with the three legs, wisdom, humility and maturity. If the criticism is intended to serve you lean in and learn. If the criticism is intended to harm you distance yourself and silence it. Both ways you win. And after all, we are all #forleaders here.
This is for leaders. I am for leaders.