Twitter was recently a buzz with the news about cricketer Virat Kohli telling a fan to leave India. The person committed the crime of posting on social media that Virat wasn’t all that great a batsman and some of the foreign batsmen were better. Criticism is something we all receive. But how we handle it makes all the difference between getting us down and lifting us up. When criticism is honest and constructive, and is received graciously and confidently, it becomes feedback. As author Ken Blanchard put it: “Feedback is the breakfast of champions”.
So, what do we need to be able to handle criticism?
To be able to take criticism well requires a measure of humility. Humility does not mean a diffidence. In fact, real humility comes from someone who is confident, secure and self-assured. It is a person without humility who is touched to the quick, reacts emotionally and with anger. Someone who is secure about their own abilities will not feel put down by unfair criticism.
Samuel Johnson, one of the great literary figures of his time, was known for his mastery of the English language. His A Dictionary of the English Language was called “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship”. Yet, when at a gathering, an elderly lady said that there was a serious error in his dictionary and asked how so scholarly a man as he could make such a mistake, he is said to have responded, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.”
Humility allows one to create space between the behaviour, attitude or performance that is being criticised and their identity. There’s no need to always take criticism personally. “You failed on this contract” does not mean “You are a failure”. Making that distinction requires humility. The humble leader feels comfortable in their identity, even in the face of criticism. There are countless examples of Abraham Lincoln not only facing criticism with equanimity and poise but often joining in, taking a dig at himself. Humour, especially the self-deprecatory kind, can help a leader weather the storm of unfair criticism.
It’s useful to ask ourselves a set of questions that help establish the context for the criticism we are facing.
Who is giving the criticism? Is this someone who cares about our growth and development? Obviously, a complete stranger’s criticism should be weighed carefully before reacting to it. But when someone who cares for us and our growth offers criticism, it is important to take it with more trust and openness.
The credibility of a person makes a big difference to how we take the criticism. Do they have the experience and knowledge that merit taking their words seriously? Are they impacted by our words or actions and, therefore, listening to them is not just important but necessary? For example, a customer’s criticism should count for more than the feedback from a consultant.
Some people criticise just because they can. It is in their nature to constantly find fault. They criticise because it makes them feel superior and self-righteous. It is easy to identify such people and we need not let their biting words or poisonous sarcasm impact us. Mature leaders know they need to have thick skin.
Is there truth to it? If something is untrue, there is no need for us to get unnecessarily worked up. But if we can see some truth in it, then it merits more serious consideration. An honest answer to this question can only come with some distance. An immediate reaction will often end up being emotional and combative. But with the benefit of a pause, a leader can ask, “Is there some truth to what the person is saying? Am I missing something?” This provides the leader with valuable insights that help them look around the corner, recognise blind spots and move to the next phase of growth.
AR Rahman summed it up well: “If there is no criticism, you become lazy. But it should be constructive, and it should be the truth. If it’s biased and there’s no truth in it, then I don’t care about it. If it’s true, it helps me grow.”
A commitment to growth
Will it help us improve and grow? This important test will help us harvest the learning necessary for our growth. I remember one of my earliest bosses — after his first trip visiting me at the business unit I was running, he complimented me on doing a good job. But then he said he was also disappointed that I hadn’t asked him for a sampling department — something that would have helped us showcase our products and innovations to aspiring customers. I never forgot the lesson — it’s great to keep the trains running on time, but are you innovating enough, are you focussing on growing the business? His criticism helped me grow.
If we are committed to growth and development, then we see criticism as an opportunity. We respect the fact that someone else may have a better view of our behaviour, performance, strengths and weaknesses. A commitment to growth protects us from getting defensive or angry. We avoid impulsive reactions. We avoid playing the victim. We learn to listen. We use the inputs for self-reflection, glean insights for change and then pursue the path of personal transformation.
It is perhaps best to close with what Aristotle said: “Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”