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How Effective Leaders Handle Criticism

All leaders have their critics. From Ellen Pao to Donald Trump, some handle it better than others.

How Effective Leaders Handle Criticism
[Photo: Flickr user Jenny Poole]

This summer has been rife with criticism of high-profile leaders. Ellen Pao, former interim CEO of the online community Reddit, stepped down gracefully last month after facing a torrent of abuse. Then there’s Donald Trump, by far the most rambunctious face of the aspiring Republican presidential pool. The two offer great, contrasting examples of how leaders should handle criticism.

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Pao’s troubles at Reddit began after the site shut down five forums considered to be racist or in poor taste under a new harassment policy and intensified with the firing of community administrator Victoria Taylor. Anonymous users flooded the website with often ugly commentary, and the furor culminated in a petition of 200,000 signatures against Pao. Despite the sordid nature of the complaints lodged against her, Pao conducted herself with grace, refusing to answer in kind.

Trump, on the other hand, carries on personal attacks against anybody and everybody who dares to disagree with him. His outrageous attacks against John McCain in particular—calling him a dummy, then claiming he was no war hero because he had been captured by the enemy—earned the outrage of millions of veterans and their families. Worse still, Trump’s antics offer an unfortunate justification to anyone who has turned away from American politics because they’re unable to stomach its atmosphere of negative attack and counterattack.

As an executive coach, I’ve worked with many leaders at the upper levels of organizations across the United States. Here’s a simple reality: The top position in every corporation comes with a big, red target which anyone who occupies that role must wear. In other words, some degree of criticism is virtually inevitable. When faced with it, I give my clients the following advice.

Don’t Let It Get Personal

First and foremost, never personalize criticism, even when you’re being personally attacked. Look how McCain handled Trump’s vicious attack. Appearing on Morning Joe, he said in a calm voice that Trump didn’t owe him an apology, but he did owe POWs and the families of POWs an apology. And he left it at that. McCain became the picture of grace under fire and gained the respect of millions.

There’s a great lesson in that. Show your wisdom and decision-making competence by remaining calm, cool, and collected. Most critics are trying to get a rise out of you, which may make you want to fire back. Don’t. Self-defense is a natural instinct, but always weigh the costs. A few careless words may haunt you for years to come.

Criticism Comes With The Job

You will be criticized. So learn to live with it. When you’re in a leadership position, it’s just part of the job description, so understand it and don’t take unfair criticism to heart. Accept the fact that a lot of criticism is aimed at those in positions of authority—as it has always been and always will be. Top executives are easy targets for people who want to vent their frustration.

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Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions

Don’t get bitter—whatever it is, let it go. Never let someone else’s criticism define who you are or derail what you’re trying to accomplish. Your first reaction may be to respond in kind or trade barbs with whoever’s criticizing you. Resist the impulse. Before you start talking, take a few moments to think carefully and weigh all the factors and ramifications of your response. In fact, it’s always better to wait a while before deciding whether or how to respond. Put it aside overnight and answer the criticism in the light of the following day. The passion you feel now will dissipate overnight and you’ll be in a better position to respond objectively and dispassionately—just as John McCain did.

Face The Truth

Since none of us are above reproach, it’s entirely possible that the criticism directed at you is—dare I say it?—justified. If it is, and you acknowledge it to yourself, you’re in a good position to correct your behavior or performance, whichever the case may be. Rising above the criticism and objectively analyzing its authenticity earns the respect of your employees.

You may not agree with the criticism, but remember this: The person criticizing you thinks you deserve it, and even if they’re wrong, you have the opportunity for a frank, and hopefully objective, discussion with them to correct their impression. Look at this as an opportunity to make an ally out of what could otherwise be an adversary.

And keep this in mind: If you get the same criticism from two or more people, you can bet there’s a problem you had best examine—and soon. As Allen Mulally, former president and CEO of Ford Motor Company was fond of saying: “Winners learn quickly how to get out of their own way.”

Hang On To Your Sense Of Humor

When reflecting on personal criticism it helps to have a sense of humor. It relieves the stress you’ll feel when somebody tells you you’re doing something wrong. And a good sense of humor is like a coat of armor; it helps shield you from unjust criticism, allowing you to laugh it off. It’s a lot better than letting false criticism eat away your stomach lining.

Finally, don’t forget what Aristotle said: “Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” To that, let me add my own two cents: It isn’t likely you can avoid criticism altogether in this world, so you have to learn how to live with it.

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Jeff Wolf is the author of Seven Disciplines of a Leader and founder and president of Wolf Management Consultants, LLC, a premier global consulting firm that specializes in helping people, teams, and organizations achieve maximum effectiveness. Wolf also blogs at Jeff Wolf on Leadership.