Writer and philosopher, Elbert Hubbard claimed, “The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” As a leader, being criticized is to be expected—and it may come from any one of a variety of directions. Criticism has many positive benefits if we are receptive to hearing them and willing to act on the feedback if appropriate. Constructive criticism can help address your weaknesses, improve your efforts in leading those around you, reveal blind spots, model openness to feedback, and demonstrate your desire to improve your performance when you act on the feedback.
The process of receiving criticism can be difficult if you don’t know how to handle it. There are four actions you can take to better handle the critiques provided to you. In order to learn from criticism, we must understand what criticism is, practice the art of listening, avoid making excuses, and ask for clarification.
1. Understand Criticism
We condition ourselves to reject all criticism. It’s a self-protection mechanism. However, the first step in learning from criticism is to understand that not all criticism is unfair or a personal attack. Some people have natural defenses that interpret any criticism as a full-on assault against them when instead, constructive criticism is meant to help them understand where they can improve. Even if someone is attacking your character through negative criticism that does not mean it should be ignored. Our ability to let down our defenses to receive feedback is a sign of emotional intelligence.
Tool: A commonly used tool for getting constructive feedback in the business environment is the 360 Feedback Process. In this process, feedback is first gathered by asking direct reports, peers, and at least one manager to respond to questions about working with you. As a coach, I work with clients to reflect on that feedback, create an action plan, and implement the action plan to make improvements. We may repeat the process in 6-8 months, which allows the client to see in concrete terms to what degree his/her performance has improved.
2. Practice the Art of Listening
The process of receiving criticism can be difficult but it really depends on how you frame it. The best practice for receiving and learning from criticism is to train yourself to listen. A conversation where you receive feedback can be a back and forth dialogue, but the most important part of that conversation is listening. Intently focusing on what is being said and internalizing the criticism is important. In order to make sure you are understanding what is being spoken, a good option is to recap the conversation. “When you have enough information, summarize and reiterate what you’ve been told. Make sure you’re both on the same page.” (Schindler, 2019)
3. Avoid Making Excuses
Making excuses should be avoided when receiving criticism. First off, making excuses never looks professional. Excuses can also set you up for a more confrontational conversation, which is not what you want. Remain calm and treat the other person with respect as you simply acknowledge the criticism with the additional action of reflecting on it and getting back to the person with thoughts or a plan of action.
4. Ask For Clarification
A better tactic than making excuses is to ask for clarification so you know exactly what the other person is trying to articulate with the feedback. A poll ran by Gallup entitled “State of the American Workplace” found that “only 23% of employees strongly agree their manager provides meaningful feedback to them.” If you are in that 23%, make sure to ask questions so you understand what opportunities are available for improvement.
Personal Story: I received some “negative” feedback/criticism during a promotional process. I felt the feedback was unjustified. I went to a mentor and shared the feedback with him. He asked me two questions that helped me reframe the feedback, which allowed me to get past the sting and implement changes. The two questions were: If the feedback was true, what would you do about it? Even though you believe the feedback wasn’t accurate, would you be willing to act on the course of action you just talked about it? I was later promoted.
Having an open mind about criticism and utilizing some of the tips above can help you learn from criticism as opposed to being stifled by it. “Feedback can be a valuable learning opportunity. When it’s given and taken in a responsible and professional manner, everyone benefits.” (Schindler, 2019)
Schindler, J. (2019, July 2). How To Accept And Learn From Criticism. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2019/07/02/how-to-accept-and-learn-from-criticism/#559328142eab.
For the Faith-based:
Most people don’t enjoy receiving criticism; however, it can be an invitation for self-reflection and improvement. Constructive criticism can be a positive outlet to build someone up while still helping them through some weaknesses or mistakes. Jesus was critical of the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. He even expressed His disapproval several times. However, criticism is about attitude.
Consider these scriptures and thoughts:
- Proverb 15:31, “He who listens to salutary reproof will abide among the wise.” Proverbs consistently explains that a wise person will positively receive criticism.
- Proverbs 9:8, “Do not rebuke an arrogant man, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” We should strive to be like the wise man by viewing criticism positively and learning from it.
- Proverbs 10:17, “He who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.” As leaders, leading others astray is the last thing we want to do.
We can look to the Bible where God’s inspired Word teaches us to critically analyze everyday situations and to learn from them, including even when we receive criticism. Receiving criticism with a humble heart and acting on it, as appropriate, allows us to serve others better.