If you’re a leader you will receive criticism. The only people who are immune from criticism are people who fail to take action, express an opinion, make an argument, or create something. In many ways, receiving criticism is a sign that you’re making a contribution to your organization, your church, or to society. Criticism is not necessarily the mark of a dysfunction organizational culture, although it can be. In many ways, the absence of criticism (disagreement) can be more symptomatic of organizational dysfunction.
The ability to effectively deal with criticism is a critical competency for leaders, especially for leaders of public organizations (like churches) that include people from a variety of backgrounds and fundamental beliefs. Not handling criticism well often leads to very public flameouts.
I’ve had my fair share of criticism over the years from more than one source and in more than one context. Dealing with criticism can be very difficult, especially it is about something that matters deeply to you. It can be tempting to throw in the towel. However, the places where we are most vulnerable to criticism, the places we care about most deeply, are also the places where we are most needed to invest ourselves.
In light of that I offer five ways to handle public criticism:
1. Do your due diligence. Think about what criticism may arise around your decision. Are they merited? Is the cost of the criticism greater than the value of the decision? Think about this before you place yourself out there so it will be settled in your mind.
2. Get the advice of trusted counselors. There is wisdom in a multitude of counsellors so make sure that you run your idea by several friends who can help you think through your decision.
3. Filter the voices. You need to think, in advance, about who are the voices you will listen to. If you have settled 1 and 2 it will be easier to deal with number 3. Don’t listen to any old Tom, Dick, and Harry as the English say. There will be online chatter. Some of it will be criticism that is helpful and constructive and offered in a generous spirit. Some will simply be snarky. You cannot defend your decision against all voices–choose well the voices you will engage.
4. Take action or make changes when appropriate. Sometimes you will have to change your decision based on the reality in the organization in which you lead. Don’t rush to do this and do not make your default a willingness to change as soon as there is push back. Do, however, have an idea of what or who will influence you to rethink a decision. When necessary, be willing to make a course alteration.
5. Own your decision. Nothing is more counterproductive than failing to own a decision. Often this comes in the form of blaming others for a change of course (#4) that you feel coerced into. If you change your mind, backtrack, or otherwise alter your course, admit that. If you’re not wrong, don’t back down. If you do back down, don’t play the victim. Simply state that given reality on the ground, you’ve decided to pursue a different direction.