Leadership: Learning to Accept Criticism

Tue, January 17, 2006

CIO 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.

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