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How to Handle Criticism (Without Getting Defensive)

How to Handle Criticism (Without Getting Defensive)
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
If you’re truly going to develop as a leader, you can’t do it without great feedback. The dilemma is that you want to hear ‘well done.’ In fact, you crave positive feedback enough that it’s tempting to only want to hear ‘well done’ rather than the truth. The irony, of course, is you don’t really get to ‘well done’ without hearing the truth. I know for me personally, it took a while to develop both a culture and a process for feedback that worked. Frankly, a lot of the delay was due to my sensitivities and insecurities. I just didn’t want to hear negative feedback. Don’t get me wrong, I often heard negative feedback. Sometimes the negative feedback was from people who were off-mission or who were honestly just negative people. While you can always glean a nugget from even your worst critic, feedback from off-mission or negative people rarely helps you develop your fullest potential. The best feedback you can receive is from people who believe in your mission, who support you and who love you. More than anyone else, they are in the best position to see your faults and help you through them. Feedback from them is gold. It took me a few years to figure out how to get feedback from the right people that was also deeply constructive. And now that I find myself in a place where helpful, truthful feedback is part of the culture, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Hearing the truth about your leadership and acting on it is the only way you can really grow as a leader long term. Honest feedback is fundamental to cultivating a deepening self-awareness. The self-aware leader is a growing leader. And growing leaders are the best leaders. Here are nine approaches and practices that will help you develop a culture of honest feedback without getting defensive. While you crave to hear ‘well done,’ you never get to ‘well done’ unless you hear the truth first.

1. Ask for it

Don’t expect people to volunteer their opinions. Some will, but they can often be off-mission, negative people and not the people you want to hear from anyway (here’s a post outlining seven signs you’re dealing with a negative person, and another one on constructing a feedback filter). Ask people who are on mission. What happens if you don’t ask for input? Well, people will still give honest feedback if you don’t ask for it; you’ll just never hear it. And that’s bad for everyone.

2. Surround yourself with people who aren’t intimidated to tell you the truth

You can find on-mission people who just don’t have the personality to tell you the truth. They are great people, but you need to solicit an inner core of people who are not intimidated by you or overly impressed with you. Usually, they are other leaders. Feedback from people who are strong leaders in their own right is the best. Leaders who surround themselves with other leaders become far better leaders.

3. Look for people who are aligned but honest

If you find strong, aligned leaders who give you feedback (that’s who I look for in elders for our church), you will never have ‘yes’ men or women around you. Instead, you will have a team that shares your mission, vision and strategy and will tell the truth to help you get there. Leaders who surround themselves with yes people ultimately say no to growth. Leaders who surround themselves with unaligned people ultimately say yes to division and chaos. Leaders who say yes to aligned, strong leaders always do best…and so does their organization. Alignment is often the difference between criticism that leads somewhere great and criticism that leads nowhere good. Here’s the outline of a talk I did a few years ago that offers more about alignment. Leaders who surround themselves with yes people ultimately say no to growth.

4. Don’t be defensive

This is difficult but so critical. Don’t offer excuses, reasons or get your back up. Tell them why you needed to hear it. Ask questions. Dig deeper. It signals to them you value what they say, and they will know they have not wasted their time.

5. Thank them

Seriously, thank every person who critiques you. Even the negative ones (and realize you may have to leave your silent thoughts unspoken). You can grow from everything. Saying thank you for criticism is perhaps the biggest signal you can give that you want it and are open to it. Sure, you need boundaries if a critic is going after you, but thanking them for any potential insight signals humility and a willingness to learn. For your best feedback people, gratitude is essential.

6. Don’t confuse your effort with your results

This is a note to self. Just because you poured 40 hours into something doesn’t mean it helped advance the mission. I had to get past the idea that trying = well done. A+ for effort but C- for results means there’s growth opportunity. Lots. You’ll always want to reward yourself for your effort. Ultimately, though, you need to own your results. Effective leaders never confuse their efforts with their results.

7. Show people how they helped you

Once you’ve processed the feedback, go back to the people who offered it and tell them how it helped you and what you’re doing about it. It’s a signal to them that their time was an investment and not a waste, and that you value personal growth.

8. Evaluate using objective tools

Conversations are one thing, but objective tools can take things to a whole new level. We evaluate weekend services every Tuesday with a set of questions. I also regularly use Survey Monkey to get feedback on everything from sermon series ideas to blog readers to new book ideas. I also love Strengths FindersRight Path and other tools that help me gain insights into personal strengths, weaknesses and team dynamics.

9. Solicit feedback regularly enough to make it part of your culture

If you practice the eight approaches outlined above regularly enough, it will become part of your culture. Solicit feedback at every turn. Ask questions. Eventually people will realize this is not only a safe place to give feedback, it’s desirable and needed to advance the mission. When leaders listen, everyone grows.

What Do You Think? 

If you want more, I wrote more about healthy leadership in my latest book, Lasting Impact, 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow What have you used to help you get regular feedback? What are your best practices? What are your stumbling blocks?