Will Salyards
Leadership Coaching and Mentoring

Will Salyards, PhD Blog

Life, Career, Leadership

Understanding Criticism

Generally, we receive criticism for three reasons: We deserve it, the critic is compensating, or the critic is making a political statement. These aren’t meant to be comprehensive but they do cover a large motive base. If you’re healthy emotionally the issue isn’t being criticized when you deserve it but whether your critic is compensating for mal-adjustments in their personality or using you as their political lightening rod. Here are seven salient facts about criticism that leaders must know. 1. The more visible is a leader the more s/he is likely to be criticized. You can be considered a “highly visible” leader in a small organization. “Visible” only refers to the prominence you have in relation to other leaders.

2. Negative criticism usually comes because the criticizer is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and seeks to induce change. The current state of affairs that a criticizer wants to change can mean anything from some aspect of organizational life to your being its leader.

3. The state of mind of the person giving the criticism directly influences how it is framed. Criticism delivered in an angry outburst differs from criticism framed in a well thought-out argument.

4. How criticism is framed affects both the criticizer’s message and how a leader responds. The more emotional the critic is the greater the tendency for the leader to react to the critic rather than the criticism.

5. Criticism matters most when it is from someone whose actions affect you. It doesn’t mean you either know or even like the person(s) only that they are in your world and their actions in some way influence you.

6. Leaders always lead. Leaders who focus on the positive aspects of critical messages create positive outcomes whereas those who focus on the negative aspects of critical messages foster negative outcomes.

7. Members consider leaders that respond calmly to criticism as competent. Members trust leaders to have the “right stuff.” Responding calmly to criticism only reinforces that you know what your about and the direction of your leadership is correct.

Criticism: Where Does It Come From? Not all criticism is created equal. Some criticism can be a result of the critic finding an opportunity to do to you what others have done to them. In this case the item of the criticism can be a legitimate concern but not the actual motive of your being criticized. You will discover this after you address the issue only to find the same person issuing yet another criticism.

Another can be a person’s acting out the desire to censure you because you exhibit a trait they have or have given up. Unable to accept the trait in themselves they are likewise unable to accept it in you. Again, the motive of the criticism isn’t your work, although the concern toward it can be real.

Yet another can be the critic’s own self-criticism that instead of prompting self-improvement becomes directed toward an authority figure - you - and can take the form of needing to blunt the authority of the leader. The criticism then just becomes an effective but distanced way to affect their rebuke. Some criticism will be to advance your critic’s political cause. I call these detractors.

Detractors and Change Detractors are those who disguise their motives as criticism when in reality it has more to do with preventing your leadership in order to realize a private political agenda. I’ve found that during change, usually a personal investment is at risk. Members must know that you have nothing to fear from an examination of what you’ve been saying. By taking time to deal fairly and address concerns without allowing yourself to be dogged, you will reassure members of the validity of what you’re proposing. Working through legitimate concerns, as opposed to dismissing them, reveals the extent that you believe your direction. It tests your own conviction that for this organization to reach its destination you are willing to disagree with significant people.

I’ve discovered three tests that help me discern if a critic is trying to make things better.

  • Is the criticism direct and to the point or a platform to list grievances?
  • Does it communicate about the issue or about you? In other words, does it show faith in you and the course that has been chosen?
  • Does the criticism come from observation? That is, has the critic given ample opportunity for actions to play-out or is it immediate to your actions?

It’s safe to say that not all critics are compensating and neither should all criticism be dismissed as ravings. Critics who are interested in your welfare and that of the organization can be a leader’s best friends because they speak with yours and the organization’s best interests in mind. Because I believe this, I encourage leaders to not internalize criticism if there isn't concern for their welfare. The difference is that in the one the person has accepted you as leader and in the other you’re merely thought of as a placeholder.

You Can Grow Through Criticism, Really! Growing through criticism requires the willingness to limit our response as well as the determination to improve our character. Here’s what I mean.

By listening rather than rejecting criticism we take our critic seriously and as importantly demonstrate willingness to consider other points of view. We also show readiness to remain accountable to the group. Responding with respect to all criticism only shows the strength of your conviction toward your work.

We grow best through criticism when we see it as an opportunity to look into our self instead of focusing on the critic. The result can be a healthy checkpoint on our self and the chance to make any necessary adjustments. Criticism can test whether your vision is formed from personally held values or those you think others may expect of you. The reason we don’t immediately reject criticism is that it can serve as a check to our motive. Leaders need to ask the interior questions of “Why am I doing it this way?” and “Who benefits?”

It helps to remember that all leaders get criticized and that we aren’t a suffering-servant because someone sent critique our way. A leader’s actions during criticism can be watched more closely than at other times and will communicate the inner values that direct your work. So regardless the motive or truth of a criticism what matters more is what you do about it. Want to talk about it? Coaching is a great place to begin. Book your appointment now!