Criticism can be tough to take. For leaders at the front of an organization or team, much of what you say and do is noticed and commented on. While this can feel threatening, the most effective leaders listen to critics as a means of acquiring helpful feedback to improve their personal and organizational performance.
By using criticism constructively, you can position yourself as someone who learns from mistakes. This contributes to a culture where executives, managers and employees feel comfortable offering criticism focused on improvement.
"The most senior person in the room doesn't necessarily have the best idea," says Walter Levitt, a Canadian media executive who is currently executive vice-president of Comedy Central in New York. He prefers that people challenge him. Mr. Levitt, like many successful executives, believes that "when a leader is open to criticism, it completely changes the dynamic – people feel relaxed and empowered and it makes for a more honest environment."
You can learn to become a leader who encourages criticism and accepts failure with equanimity by practising the following principles.
Seek different perspectives; value contrarians.
In order to make informed decisions, leaders need other points of view. You should actively seek perspectives and opinions from a variety of people throughout your organization – not repeatedly the same team members. The best leaders value the diversity of others' opinions as a resource, not a threat. By encouraging helpful, constructive criticism (while discouraging personal attacks) you can cultivate a culture of feedback, where people feel empowered to offer alternative ideas and suggestions and to constructively criticize peers and superiors.
Learn from mistakes.
Our natural tendency is to react to failure by seeking to blame. However when we're focused on avoiding or attributing blame, we prevent ourselves from learning. Therefore, reframe setbacks as learning opportunities. Be interested instead of defensive. Before taking action, strive to understand the mistake and the factors that caused it. Gather information and feedback. Ask for examples to help you understand the issue. Keep an open mind. Don't take criticism personally; practise listening calmly. When you have a good understanding of the mistake or setback and have received feedback regarding possible contributing factors, only then look for solutions: What did we learn from this? How can I do better next time?
Take thoughtful action.
Take time to reflect on what you've learned. If the criticisms and suggestions are valid, adjust your decisions and actions accordingly. By reflecting before acting, you'll demonstrate the kind of reasoned leadership that earns respect from others. Focus on how to do better in the future rather than on what should have been done. Make the necessary changes to avoid a similar mistake and then move on.
Actively and optimistically pursue new opportunities.
Successful leaders never allow critiques to stop creative ideas. Comedy Central's Walter Levitt says criticism comes with the contract when you become a leader. While new ideas always carry the risk of failure, they always lead to new knowledge.
So go ahead, embrace the opportunities – and hug your critics.
Barbara Morris, president of Elevate Organizations, is a leadership development specialist and coach who helps individuals and organizational teams optimize potential and achieve goals.