- Carey Nieuwhof
So you signed up for leadership, but you didn’t really sign up for all the criticism that came with it, did you? And yet here you are. Criticism is an almost daily staple for most leaders. You get everything from side comments, to direct challenges, to people who walk out the door, to anonymous notes sent to you by people with no courage. You dread it. I dread it. Who doesn’t? In fact, it can completely derail your day, your week and your work. So what do you do when it comes your way?
The Best Way to Avoid CriticismOne way to handle critics is to dream of working in a place where no one criticizes anyone. And, as a result, more than a few leaders have left a place of employment or ministry to find greener pastures where there won’t be as much opposition, only to be disappointed that criticism just seems to come with the territory wherever you go. Don’t get me wrong, there are some toxic workplaces and there are definitely some toxic people (here are six early warning signs you’re dealing with a toxic person). And there are healthy workplaces and healthy people. But even in a healthy environment, criticism is inevitable. The best way to avoid critics is to do nothing significant. Clearly, that’s not you. So how do you deal with it?
5 Way to Handle Criticism Like an Emotionally Intelligent LeaderThe problem for me with criticism is that it makes me want to respond like a toddler would. Criticism naturally makes me defend, deny, and if I’m having a bad day, it also makes me want to retaliate. None of that is good. And if you study leaders who don’t do well in the long run, they almost always tend to respond to critics with immaturity. This is where emotional intelligence can be a leader’s best friend. And the good news is, emotional intelligence can be learned (here, for example, are five EI hacks that can help you grow as a leader).
Here are five learnable hacks that, when I follow them, have helped me handle criticism like an emotionally intelligent leader would.
1. Don’t Respond for 24 Hours. Just Don’t.Every time you get a critical email, a critical comment, a critical text or phone call, something happens inside you, doesn’t it? Your heart starts beating faster. You feel hurt, even crushed depending on what they said. And sometimes you get angry. And usually when that happens, your emotions derail your brain. At least they derail mine. I learned years ago almost nothing good happens when I’m upset. In an attempt to address the situation, I almost always make it worse. Even if I convince myself I’ll make it better, I usually don’t. Not when I’m upset. So years ago, I made a rule. When you feel an emotional reaction to criticism, don’t respond for 24 hours. That’s easy in the case of an email, a text or written complaint. Just sleep on it. But even when there’s a verbal exchange, just bite your tongue. Thank them. Say little or nothing. Don’t respond. After 24 hours elapse, something amazing usually happens. You get your brain back. A day later, you can respond reasonably and rationally to something that you once could only respond to emotionally. You’ve slept on it. Hopefully you’ve prayed about it. And maybe you’ve even talked to a few wise friends about how to respond with grace and integrity. You’ve lost nothing. And you’ve gained so much. So wait. Just wait.
2. Ask Yourself: Is There Any Truth in This?During those 24 hours, you can start asking sensible questions, the chief of which is “Is there any truth in this?” Sometimes there’s not. But often there is. If you’re not sure, ask a friend or colleague. They may see what your critic sees. Even if there’s just a nugget of truth, that nugget can help you grow into a better person and better leader. Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, and our critics help us become more self-aware. Even if there’s zero truth in what the critic is saying, at least you searched. And by asking, you lost nothing.
3. Own What You CanOwn whatever part of the issue you can. Preachers, if someone says your message was useless, try to understand why someone walked out of the room feeling that way. Don’t just look to your fans to make you feel better. Try to understand how someone could have invested an hour of their life but left confused or upset. If someone was offended by what you said, try to understand why. Own that piece, even if their reaction to what you did was a terrible overreaction. Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame. So become a great leader, especially when it comes to criticism.
4. Reply RelationallyJust because they shot off an email in the dark of night doesn’t mean you should. Just because they came to the microphone in a meeting and sounded off doesn’t mean you should return the favor. I learned this strategy from Andy Stanley and have followed it ever since. Take your response to criticism up one level from how they corresponded with you. Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you. Example:
- If they emailed you, call them. You’ll not only shock them, but you’ll quickly diffuse the situation. People are bolder on email than they ever are in a conversation. Nothing good regarding conflict ever happens on email.
- If they stopped you in the hall and blasted you, take them out for coffee. Call them and tell them you would like to learn from them and address the issue in person.
- If they got mad at a meeting, go for lunch after.