Leadership: Learning to Accept Criticism

Consider this: Your boss’s face draws a blank, color rises to the cheeks and hardens into a firm look. If such expressions could harm, you’d be in the ER. But you would have plenty of company because you are one of the many thousands of brave souls who have given, or attempted to give, their boss a critique. It could have been about his way of addressing the team, or it may have been about her way of managing a project without input. Regardless the criticism was not taken well. And so there you are left in the glare of the moment wondering if you will still have a job come next morning.

Listening Up

Accepting criticism is an essential leadership trait yet too many of our leaders in high places, be it team leader, head coach or CEO, do not seem to take it well. Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, is a case in point. Had she been willing to listen to her team instead of firing them, she might have cultivated the support she needed to lead the company. But when HP’s business took a turn for the worse, Fiorina found that there was no one following her.

While many in senior leadership positions do acknowledge the virtue of honest criticism, they bristle when that critique comes from those subordinate in rank. The boss’s attitude is “how dare she speak to me like that?” Well, truth be told, the question should be, “how dare she not speak that way?” Criticism rooted in fact about the business or about the management of that business is appropriate.

Since honest feedback is essential to running any organization. It should be cultivated so that employees feel free to critique their higher ups. And in turn, those higher ups should feel comfortable accepting such criticism. Giving criticism to a boss requires the velvet glove treatment.

Here are some suggestions for giving and receiving criticism.

Know your facts. If you are going to criticize your boss, you’d better be right. John Boyd, the legendary fighter-pilot instructor who not only taught new ways to fight but also contributed to the development of new generations of aircraft, was a relentless critic. It cost him his career but he made his points because his facts were straight. This approach also applies to coaching advice. For example, if you have a boss who’s heavy handed with subordinates in meetings, cutting them off before they can make their points, it is acceptable to criticize. Do not say “you’re being mean.” Focus instead on what the boss is doing wrong and how it is affecting the performance of others. You may need to cite specific incidents, e.g., a staff meeting or a project review. Results are what count and coaching should be developed to bring about better results.

Take it in stride. Rolling with the punches is not an admission that your critics are right; it is statement that you understand that people will disagree with you. Those in leadership need to listen to their critics, but be strong enough not to retaliate in kind. Leaders have the right, even the duty, to defend themselves, but not to the extent that they discredit their opponents.

Edward R. Murrow’s investigation of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pursuit of communists in government is one such case study. Murrow, a legendary journalist for CBS News, made the case that McCarthy regularly and ruthlessly made scurrilous accusations against anyone he deemed might be pro communist. McCarthy’s red baiting investigations ruined many lives needlessly. This story is told with verve and passion in the new film written and directed by George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck. In responding to Murrow’s charges, McCarthy did not argue the merits of Murrow’s investigation. Rather McCarthy accused Murrow himself of being a communist. Murrow stood by his story and deflected all personal attacks with facts not vitriol. Murrow did not crawl into the gutter with McCarthy; he stayed on the high side of the road. Months later, McCarthy self destructed on national television during the Senate’s own hearings into McCarthy’s accusations of communist influence in the U.S. Army.

Chill then act. When you receive criticism, take a deep breath and thank the person who gave it. Yes, thank him. You may not agree, or you may need to think about it, but you should commend the individual for standing up and speaking his mind. Your reaction will set the tone for what happens next. If you lash out, that will be the last criticism you ever hear. That might assuage your ego, but you may risk running your department or your organization into the ground because you won’t have all the facts. If you reflect and then act you will demonstrate a degree of leadership that engenders respect.

Learning From It

As important as criticism is, there are moments when an employee should hold fire. For example, during times of crisis, such as a failed product launch or the sudden departure of a key executive, it is not advisable to lay on the critiques. Wait for an opportune moment and then deliver. That said, tough times call for tough actions and leaders need to receive straight talk from their people, even when that talk verves into their own shortcomings.

Bravery is required to stand and deliver something other than flattery to the boss. It is a myth to think that responsibility lies solely with the person at the top. While the passage of Sarbannes Oxley reform act makes those at the top criminally liable for corporate misdeeds, it is up to everyone in the organization to share in that role. Such responsibility is not reserved only for avoiding wrongdoing. More often it is about “right-doing,” that is, giving your boss the straight story on why a project failed or what can be done to improve a process or even how to improve team and individual performance.

Leaders need input from everyone on the team. Those who accept criticism are those leaders who not only achieve results they want; they also improve their own prospects for advancement. They position themselves as people who can learn from mistakes and take action. What’s more, their behavior over time creates a culture where others up and down the organization feel empowered to offer criticism that is based in fact and intended for improvement rather than denigration.

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