Face it. No matter how well you perform your duties throughout your career, someone will always criticize you. The more successful you are, the more you might become a target of criticism. No one likes having the quality of their work belittled, the soundness of their decisions questioned or their integrity challenged, but it's how you deal with criticism that determines your power and how big a man you really are. We can learn a lot from how successful people handle criticism.
Criticism usually represents an opportunity to make improvements. Sure, there are some people who take a sadistic pleasure in being nasty, but most criticism is genuinely intended to be constructive. Fighting back, arguing or being disrespectful in the face of constructive criticism serve no purpose except to escalate what may be a minor correction into a major issue. Willingness to accept constructive criticism and act upon it is a sign of maturity and professionalism.
Determine the Source
Was the criticism raised by a colleague, subordinate, client, or superior? Could it be jealousy? Many senior managers feel threatened by young professionals who are climbing the corporate ladder.
A co-worker may criticize you in a misguided attempt to spotlight his supposedly superior work and capabilities. All he is really highlighting in doing so, however, are his own insecurities.
Criticism from a client, on the other hand, is rarely based on jealousy and is far more likely to be a thinly disguised product or service complaint.
Pay particular attention to criticism that originates from your employees. One of your direct reports may be setting you up for a sexual harassment or poisoned workplace lawsuit.
Understanding where the criticism is coming from is key to knowing how to best handle it. Less than a week before the California recall election in 2003, supporters of an opponent hit actor and gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger with potentially career-shattering criticism. The Terminator took aim at the ancient allegations of sexual harassment and apologized. Falling on his sword and offering an apology made it a non-issue. Denials would have fanned the flames even more, as we all learned from the Bill Clinton fiasco.
Figure out if it's your Fault
Put your ego aside. If the criticism has merit, listen to the feedback objectively and be sure you understand it. Consider your options to rectify the situation or resolve the problem. There are many successful CEOs and businessmen out there who've made mistakes and received criticism, but they proved that they could put their egos aside, assess the situation, take ownership, and come back even stronger.
Real estate magnate Donald Trump was frequently criticized for his flamboyant excesses. Although a couple of lousy investments drastically reduced his net worth, he did not allow the criticism to destroy his self-esteem.
Multi-billionaire Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Seagram Company Ltd., also overlooked criticism. Although people criticized and mocked him for purchasing Polygram/MCA and Universal Pictures, the entertainment division boosted its corporate image, but not the bottom line.
David Stern is one example of how not to handle criticism: He is being blamed for the poor performance of the NBA but is refusing to accept the negative feedback.
Don't Look for a Scapegoat
Do not sound defensive, blame someone else or issue denials in the hopes that the issue will fade away. An explanation often sounds like an excuse or denial. Stay professional. Former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch's image was only temporarily tarnished when his divorce proceedings in July 2003 revealed that his severance package far exceeded the norm. Rather than attempt to deflect or defend the criticism, Welch renounced all but the standard retirement benefits and salvaged his professional reputation.
Don't Fight the System
People tend to shoot the messenger. You've probably been criticized for something that was not in your control. Perhaps a corporate policy was the real target, or an entire department's involvement in a project. Don't take it personally, avoid being defensive and deal with whatever is within your control.
When a waiter unknowingly serves under cooked food to restaurant patrons, he should accept the criticism professionally and do as much damage control as he can. Airline check-in agents are not responsible for flight delays due to weather conditions or mechanical malfunctions, but how they handle the crowd of angry passengers regains control and creates a positive impression.
When the public turned against Microsoft for monopolizing the software market, Bill Gates took responsibility. Rather than hiding behind corporate spin, he apologized and took action to improve Microsoft's image — and his own popularity rose.
If you're in a leadership role, take the initial heat for your team. Meet with your staff to discuss the problems objectively and create solutions together. Constructive criticism can be a gift. It's all in your attitude when you receive it.
Are you in over your head? If you are being criticized but cannot change, go to Plan B. Maybe someone else should make the presentations if public speaking is not your strength.
Critical comments of a personal nature are often harder to accept, but successful people develop the ability to dismiss or deflect criticism that is not about their professional abilities. When interviewers mention his trademark hairstyle, The Donald simply laughs.
Dos and Don'ts of Criticism
Do listen objectively
Do ask for specifics
Do get a second opinion and do your own research
Do apologize, take ownership and responsibility
Do show that you are taking feedback into consideration
Do take corrective action
Do learn from it
Don't ignore the criticism
Don't get defensive, angry or rude
Don't waste time making excuses
Don't react in haste before considering the best plan of action
Don't blame others
Don't engage in a cover-up
Don't dwell on the error
Take it like a Man
Criticism can result from perceived inadequacies, actual wrongdoings or unmet expectations. It can also stem from pettiness, jealousy and "having a bad day" syndrome. Constructive criticism can only impact you negatively if you continue to berate yourself. So focus on your successes. Develop a thick skin and be prepared to deal with criticism, whether it is justified or not. Be objective, take action and let it go. And always give people less reason to criticize in the first place by going above and beyond.