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Three Lessons On Taking Criticism For Startup Founders

As one startup founder puts it, “If you never hear negative criticism, you’re doing something wrong.”

Three Lessons On Taking Criticism For Startup Founders
[Photo: Flickr user Juhan Sonin]

It isn’t just subordinates who need to get used to handling negative feedback. For startup heads who’ve founded a company and later face the challenge of managing a growing team, criticism can feel downright wounding. It often takes a willful, strong-headed leader who’s deeply committed to her idea to get a new company off the ground.

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But those traits don’t necessarily translate into effective leadership further down the road–even though constructive criticism is essential. Here are three lessons for startup founders to take negative feedback more productively as their companies grow.

1. It’s Possible Someone Else Is Right

There’s often some truth–even if only an iota–to every bit of criticism a startup founder is likely to receive. That goes for the comment I once received, to the effect of, “You aren’t going to be able to build a company out of your dumb idea.” You can prove doubters wrong, but it remains true that ideas are essentially worthless without great execution–and this harsh comment reinforced that concept.

For many startup founders, the notion that someone else might be right can be uncomfortable, to put it lightly. But that notion isn’t only possible, it’s probable, particularly within your team. We all hate negative feedback, and a common knee-jerk reaction is to think the person offering it is wrong. It takes patience and practice to honestly assess criticism in order to find value in it–even when it’s off-base.

Stubbornness has its place, but thinking you’re right and taking criticism aren’t mutually exclusive. Most of the time, critics are trying to help. You should allow specialists on your team to specialize, then use that expertise to weigh in on the things they know about, even if what they’re saying comes out as a critique. That not only encourages autonomy within your ranks, it also improves the likelihood that your company will make the right decisions at the right times.

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2. You’ll Learn To Deal With It

What’s more, harsh criticism has immense value in the simple fact of its harshness. Listening to things that are tough to hear helps you get better at dealing with negativity of all kinds. Learning to deal with it can make you a better leader in the face of adversity. Someone once told me, “I don’t see any value in your product. You should stop working on it.” Harsh, yes, but that comment helped me prepare for the possibility that my company might fail, then think twice as hard about how to prevent that.

If you never hear negative criticism, you’re doing something wrong. Either you’re not talking to anyone, you’re talking to people who aren’t telling you the truth, or your idea simply isn’t groundbreaking enough to warrant getting others to engage with it. Getting negative feedback is a sign that you’re doing something that’s actually worth questioning. Accept that first, and the rest comes easier.

3. Your Team Will Trust You

Don’t drag your troops into battle—win or lose, it’s the dragging that’s a problem. Some founders don’t care if their team members are passionate, just as long as they come to work every day. But an unsupportive (or just unengaged) team will jump at the chance to work someplace that energizes them or is simply more successful, and it’s only then–when it’s probably too late–that a startup founder’s pigheadedness can lead to business-sinking loneliness.

If you have an inkling that your demeanor is preventing those closest to you from offering their honest criticism, step back and invite your team to weigh in. Your employees should trust you enough to fully support your final decision, but in order to do that, they first need to feel comfortable enough to raise questions and concerns. If honesty seems too scary, allow for anonymity.

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Trust can be built over time, but it’s easier to do early on in a startup’s journey rather than later, once the company grows and its culture solidifies. But your startup may not see that day if you can’t manage to accept criticism and learn from it.

Kyu Lee is the CEO and cofounder of knowledge-sharing platform Wiselike. Kyu was previously the CEO of CareerDean and is a graduate of UCLA. Follow him on Twitter at @kyudlee.

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