How to Accept Criticism Gracefully – and Be a Better Leader

No one likes to be criticized. Even when it’s a valid critique, or delivered constructively, it’s still difficult to hear that you have room for improvement. And when criticism is delivered harshly or with the intent to tear you down? That can have a long-lasting effect on your psyche and your ongoing willingness to take on new challenges.

Criticized businessman

Although learning to accept criticism gracefully is important for anyone, it’s especially important for leaders. Good leaders are visible and transparent, but putting yourself “out there” like that also means that everything that you say and do is on display and open for comment and critique. In fact, there are some who argue that if, as a leader, you aren’t being criticized, then you aren’t making yourself visible enough, and others are unlikely to follow you. Leadership requires getting out of your comfort zone and making difficult choices and doing hard things, while also serving as an example for others.

This creates a conundrum for many leaders. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is being open to feedback and input from others, but at the same time, it can sometimes feel like you don’t do anything right. Completing MBA programs online and taking other courses and training can give you the knowledge and confidence you need to make the right decisions, but there is likely to always be someone who doesn’t like what you are doing. Learning how to accept criticism and feedback gracefully can help you get through those moments when you are being questioned (perhaps unfairly) while also knowing when to act on – and when to ignore – the feedback you receive.

Set the Tone

The first step to learning to accept criticism is making it known that you want to hear what people have to say. If your team is afraid to bring things to your attention because they don’t know how you will react, that could spell big trouble for the organization; history is riddled with examples of leaders who did not listen to their subordinates, and paid the price.

From day one, you need to set the expectation that you want to hear feedback – even if it’s not all sunshine and roses. Ask your team for honest feedback, and for their constructive ideas about what is happening and how the business can improve. Seek insights from different people, not just your cheerleaders. Cultivate an environment in which people are free to speak their minds without fear of rebuke or retaliation.

Take a Breather

Creating an environment that encourages criticism means that you will get it, and there will undoubtedly be times when you feel angry and/or attacked, and want to defend yourself. Before responding to any negative feedback, though, take some time to step back and breathe, and consider what the other person is saying. Is it possible that they have a valid point? Is your response merely a visceral reaction to your feelings being hurt? Even if you just need to count to 10, or ask for a few hours to think about what’s been said, giving yourself a moment to process the comments and determine your response will always be more productive.

Know What to Ignore

Just because someone has a criticism doesn’t mean that they are right. Sometimes, criticism is purely personal, or due to a bad mood or some other frustration. Again, taking time to consider the feedback, and evaluate whether your critic has a valid point or not, can make a major difference in the outcome. You may just need to take the criticism in stride, agree to disagree, and move on.

Know When to Act

There will undoubtedly be times when your critics are correct, and you need to adjust course. Upon reflection, you might see that they have a point and change your actions or decisions. However, again, this needs to come after a period of reflection, for acting immediately upon any type of criticism is not only unhealthy, but can harm the organization. Think about what’s been said, consider your response, and what you can do to modify your behavior.

Accepting criticism gracefully not only helps you learn from your mistakes and improve your performance, but it also helps to empower your team and inspire them to follow you. Everyone wants to be heard, and when people feel like they can be honest and forthright with you – and make a difference in how things are run – then they feel respected and empowered, and will be more willing to work with you and move things forward. And really, that’s the goal for any leader.


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