Handling criticism, whether direct or perceived, is a key component to effective leadership. Many leaders do not handle criticism well or in a healthy way. Because of the power of the position the leader is in, he/she may not be aware he/she is losing some level of effectiveness based on his/her handling of criticism or perceived criticism.
I have been doing quite a bit of work in my life on handling criticism and/or perceived criticism. My first reaction to both direct and perceived criticism has been defensiveness. Throughout my life, as I received criticism, I felt a personal attack on my character. Drilling down beneath the perceived personal attack, I found that when the criticism seemed to question my competence, I would become defensive. By becoming defensive, I believe that I am protecting that part of me that feels stupid, powerless, and inept. Here are some of the results of my being defensive:
I damage relationships. My defensiveness, left unchecked will manifest itself in condescending language and action on my part. If pushed to the point of a sense of powerlessness, I will power up in order to not feel weak. From this place, I attack others’ character and ultimately hurt them emotionally in order to protect me. This hurt I inflict ultimately slows productivity.
I cut off opportunities for growth. By becoming defensive, I cease listening to anything constructive or not, that may help me grow. My lack of growth keeps me form being an effective leader.
I create a false sense of who I am. By cutting off any chances at growth, I create a world that may not match reality. When I am not in touch with that reality, I make poor decisions.
I become isolated. Putting all the above together, I build walls and ultimately create a critical, lonely environment for myself. When I am in this place, I cannot be trusted as a leader.
So, as noted in the opening, I have been working on what triggers my defensiveness. I am beginning to get a handle on the source of my defensiveness. However, I cannot stop there. Just recognizing my defensiveness is a great help to me, but it alone does not keep me from defending myself when I feel my competence being questioned. I need a tool to guide me through the landmines of criticism.
I recently ran across a great process for handling criticism (both direct and perceived). It boils down to three questions I can ask myself as I feel a criticism coming my way.
What about this criticism is not true and needs to be discarded? As hear what is being said and I check in around the core truth about me and my character, what do I need to just let bounce off of me?
What about this criticism is not true but needs to be addressed? This is a little trickier. There is a fine line between handling this in a healthy way and being defensive. The criticism is not true about me or my character. However, I might show up in such a way that I might be perceived as being characterized how my critic accuses me. A statement I use is, “I can see where I can be viewed this way…” and then I give the critic some data he/she may not know. Then, I offer that my actions were not my intention and will be conscious of how I show up in the future.
What about this criticism can help me to become a better person? What is true about my actions or words? What can I own and take responsibility for in this situation? What new awareness about me can I glean from this criticism? (I have to be careful not to make myself a martyr…by doing so…I am being defensive in a manipulative way.)
By breaking the oncoming criticism into these three categories, it simplifies how to handle my defensiveness. I don’t voice these when dealing with others necessarily, but I do use them. Here is a hypothetical example: “I hear you say that am inconsiderate and I don’t like you. Not liking you is not true, however I can see where the recent exchanges we have had have been confrontational in nature and I could have come across as if I do not like you. In our confrontations, I am being directive. I will pay attention in the future on how my directive action comes across. When I made my directive statements, I did not consider your feelings before speaking. I do not want to be an inconsiderate person. I will ask more questions about you before making directive statements in order to consider your feelings before I speak.” The “discard” is…I don’t like this person. The “addressed” is how I show up in confrontation. The part to “make myself better” is to take into consideration the other’s feelings before making directive statements.
As is true with any strategy of self-improvement, there is no magic formula. Hopefully, breaking this into three easy to remember steps, can give all of us some tools to avoid defensiveness and live a more rounded, authentic life.