How to Take Criticism in Stride

Executives take a lot of pushback, but don’t always handle it well. A key step is to create an environment where critics know they’ll be heard. 

No CEO takes the top job expecting to always be agreed with. But the reasons that a CEO can receive criticism are more robust and intense than ever, from return-to-office policies to political stances to unusual hobbies that some consider a distraction. (Insensitive social-media posts can invite brickbats too, even on relatively calm venues like LinkedIn.)

Which is to say that successful leaders should make an effort to anticipate criticism and create environments where it can be expressed in a healthy way—whether that’s among staff, board members, or other association stakeholders. In a recent Sloan MIT Management Review article on the topic, authors Phillip G. Clampitt and Bob DeKoch spotlight some of the ways executives tend to get that wrong. But they effectively boil down to the same error: ignoring the problem and wishing it would just go away.

Minimizing criticism creates a false certainty that undermines trust in the long term.

CEOs might do that by ceding the discussion to those who deliver the loudest and most impassioned comments, not necessarily most thought-through arguments; effectively being that person by taking authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway stances; or telling critics that their concerns are irrelevant or overinflated, which, the authors write, offers “false certainty that undermines trust in the long term.”

The tricky part for executives is that they often don’t realize they’re creating or enabling this dynamic unless they’re explicitly called out on it. The authors share the example of one CEO who, wondering why they weren’t receiving robust feedback, was told, “We don’t share our thoughts on this issue because you are going to do what you are going to do, regardless of what we say.”

Of course, the proper posture for a CEO to take here is to be open to criticism and cultivate candor. But one point that Clampitt and DeKoch stress is that, lacking an explicitly created environment for those candid conversations, they’re unlikely to happen. The authors are skeptical about large, town-hall style conversations around contentious issues, which can devolve into rant-filled free-for-alls. Small-group discussions, they write, “maximize the opportunities for insightful queries, deliberative discourse, and respectful debate.”

True, it’s a good thing to create white space in an executive or board meeting that’s designed for expressing concerns and disagreements. (And sometimes that can involve literal white space, they explain, recommending using a whiteboard to record concerns anonymously in meetings, which can assist with “tempering strong emotions.”)

But the most effective approach to managing pushback, they explain, is being the kind of leader who makes it clear they’re always ready and willing to absorb it. Leaders should be prepared to vocalize the pushback they receive, both in the midst of conversations and while announcing the final path they’ve decided on. “Simple tactics like asking questions or rephrasing someone else’s argument—particularly those with which you disagree—can temper the rebuttal and almost magically enhance the conversational tone,” they write.

That magic won’t extend to making everybody agree with you, of course—ultimately, leaders have to be decisive and move in a direction that will frustrate some people. After all, a leader’s goal isn’t to be universally loved, but to make the most thoughtful decisions possible that are in the organization’s best interest. Creating space to listen to criticism, acknowledge it, and integrate it in the decision-making process goes a lot farther than suppressing the concerns you’ll inevitably face.

(Banphote Kamolsanei/iStock)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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