I grew up in a wonderful, loving, positive family. I don’t ever recall my parents criticizing anyone—it just wasn’t allowed. So you can imagine the transition I had to make when I got out on my own and began to receive the stinging criticisms of those I was leading. In fact, one of the most difficult emotional hurdles I faced was in handling criticism. And finally, a wise friend told me, “John, if you’re getting kicked in the rear it means you’re out front.”
What he was saying was if you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to be criticized—so get used to it. The price of leadership is criticism. No one pays much attention to the last-place finishers. But when you’re in front, everything gets noticed, so it’s important to learn to handle criticism constructively. The following four-step process, which I included in my book Leadership Gold, has helped when people criticize me as a leader. I would like to pass it on to you.
1. Know yourself
This is a reality issue. Early in my career, I wanted to make everybody happy. It took me a couple of years to realize that if I was going to lead, there would inevitably be tough decisions that were going to make some people upset. I asked myself: Do I want to make people happy or do I really want to lead? I understood clearly that I had to begin to know who I was.
Over the years, people have tried to help me know myself. They often begin with the phrase, “I’m going to tell you something for your own good.” I’ve discovered that when they tell me something for my own good, they never seem to have anything good to tell me! Yet, it’s these conversations that have helped me learn much about myself, including discovering many of my weaknesses. I have realized that what I need to hear most is often what I want to hear the least. Some of the best people who ever entered my life to teach me something were my critics, not my friends.
2. Change yourself
This is a responsibility issue. In the process of handling criticism effectively, you not only need to know yourself, you have to change yourself. Herbert Agar said, “The truth that makes men free is, for the most part, the truth which men prefer not to hear.” The John Maxwell translation of this is simple: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.
Here are the questions I ask myself to determine whether criticism is constructive or destructive:
- Who criticized me? Adverse criticism from a wise person is more desirable than the enthusiastic approval of a fool.
- How was it given? Were the words judgmental or did they give me the benefit of the doubt? In other words, what was the spirit in which the criticism was given?
- Why was it given? Was it given to inflict personal hurt or for my benefit?
Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, had many critics in spite of his grand accomplishments. He once made this interesting observation: “People will tell you that you are wrong. Then they will tell you that you are right, but what you’re doing is really not important. Finally, they will admit that you are right and what you are doing is very important. But after all, they knew it all the time.”
Regardless of whether the criticism was legitimate or not, I have discovered that my attitude toward words I do not want to hear determines whether I grow from them or groan beneath them. Therefore, I have determined to not be defensive when criticized, but to look for the grain of truth, make the necessary changes and take the high road.
3. Accept yourself
This is a maturity issue. I saved the following quote from “Dear Abby” a few years ago because I love her definition of maturity. She says, “Maturity is: The ability to stick with the job until it’s finished. The ability to do the job without being supervised. The ability to carry money without spending it. And the ability to bear an injustice without wanting to get even.”
Maturity also enables you to accept yourself, which is the first step in becoming a better person. Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Leo Buscaglia counseled, “The easiest thing to be in the world is you. The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be.” If you worry about what people think of you, it’s because you have more confidence in their opinion than you have in your own. As Judith Bardwick said, “Real confidence comes from knowing and accepting yourself—your strengths and limitations—in contrast to depending on affirmation from others.”
4. Forget yourself
This is a security issue. While we are growing up, a lot of us spend a good deal of time worrying about what the world thinks of us. By the time we reach 60, we realize the world wasn’t paying much attention. Secure people forget themselves so they can focus on others. This allows us to be secure enough to take criticism and even serve the critic.
Secure people know who they are. They know they make mistakes and have weaknesses, but they don’t have to lower themselves to the level of what is being said about them. Secure people don’t have to defend themselves—instead, they find it easy to laugh at themselves.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves. They shall never cease to be entertained.” For years, I have laughed at myself for the foolish things I have done over the course of my life. I even learned to laugh about a heart attack I had 10 years ago.
During my recovery, I decided I would spend a day reflecting on what would have happened if I had died. What would my funeral service be like? How many people would show up? As everyone knows, the size of the crowd the day they bury you will be dependent on the weather. Next, what do they do after they put you in the ground? Yes, 30 minutes after you are buried, the biggest question on the minds of your family and friends is how to get to the community center the fastest to make sure they get some potato salad.
When it comes to criticism, it’s important to first understand that half of the stuff people say about you is true. So just take inventory, suck it up and change. And the other half they say about you is not—they are just revealing issues in their own lives. If you know yourself, you will know what you are good at and what you are not. Start changing the things that are necessary and forget yourself so that you can focus on others. The criticism will never stop, but if you are able to get to this fourth stage, criticism won’t have a negative effect on your life. That’s a big lesson I had to learn that has helped me as a leader, and I hope it helps you, too.
This article was published in August 2009 and has been updated. Photo by Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock