A series of lightbulbs, representing contructive criticism.
How Leaders Can Learn to Embrace Constructive Criticism
A series of lightbulbs, representing contructive criticism.

How Leaders Can Learn to Embrace Constructive Criticism

As Comedy Central’s Walter Levitt says, “criticism comes with the contract when you become a leader.” Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes we all need someone to tell us when we aren’t reaching our full potential. Constructive criticism is necessary for everyone’s development. However this is especially true for leaders, who will use that development to take their team to the next level.

One great example of this, are the “listening sessions” used by Duke Energy CEO James Rogers. Rogers allotted at least three hours per week to get feedback from his company’s managers. He admitted that he wouldn’t have noticed many issues without these sessions. They also helped him understand his performance, and his employees’ needs.

He asked everyone to give him an anonymous grade from A to F, and shared these grades with the whole company. He was surprised to find that over half were below A, and focused on improving his performance.

Rogers went on to become one of the most respected leaders in the industry, receiving the Edison Electric Institute’s Distinguished Leadership Award in 2013. What made him such a great leader? His openness to criticism was definitely a huge factor.

Let’s take a closer look at how constructive criticism will benefit you, and how to take it well.

The benefits of constructive criticism

Constructive criticism isn’t just about telling someone what they’re doing wrong. It involves identifying key problems as well as suggesting avenues for improvement. As such, there’s plenty a leader can get from constructive criticism.

Understanding your team’s needs

Reaching out to your team to ask for feedback is a great way to stimulate healthy 2-way communication. Accepting feedback is an important step when it comes to motivating and engaging a team. It gives leaders a deeper understanding of what employees need to perform, what motivates them, and how to help them reach their objectives. Identifying and nurturing factors that subordinates find rewarding, and working on those they find challenging, is vital to building a productive team.

A rich source of ideas

In order to make informed decisions, leaders need points of view other than their own. Leaders who welcome perspectives from a variety of employees, and see this as a resource rather than a threat, cultivate a culture of feedback and transparency. This helps employees feel comfortable offering suggestions to their peers and superiors. Take Pixar’s President Edwin Catmull as an example. He said that much of his best work actually resulted not from his own, but his employees’ ideas. He shared that Toy Story and Finding Nemo would not have been possible had it not been for the constant flow of ideas and suggestions from every employee involved (no matter how small their role).

Constructive criticism promotes learning

It’s very easy to overlook your mistakes until someone points them out. Our natural tendency is to react to criticism by looking for something (or someone else) to blame. This mindset prevents us from actually learning. If we choose to think of constructive criticism as learning opportunities, and take the time to reflect on what we’ve learned, we’ll have the tools to take thoughtful action.

Criticism and transparency

Radical transparency — or transparency by default — is a mindset we use at Unito to make everything about our company more accessible to everyone. It means being completely transparent with candidates throughout the hiring process, making all salaries known to every employee, and encouraging leaders to be more transparent with their teams. Criticism plays a huge part in that, and everyone at Unito is expected to take constructive criticism and use it to improve the way they work.

Here’s why transparency matters

How to handle constructive criticism

The Muse and Forbes provide great overviews of how to make the most of negative feedback.

Pause before responding

Before you react, stop and give your brain a couple of seconds to process the situation. Those brief moments will help stop an unwanted facial expression and help you think rationally and objectively. Even constructive criticism can trigger strong reactions, and if you don’t want to act impulsively, you need to take a moment before proceeding.

Avoid getting defensive

A common initial reaction to constructive criticism is to get offended and argue. Giving negative feedback is as hard and nerve-racking as receiving it. If we approach the situation by redirecting the blame or getting defensive, it won’t encourage the person to be open with us again the future, nor will it help us improve.

Don’t take constructive criticism personally

Constructive criticism is not about you as a person, but only someone’s observation about one of your specific behaviours or approaches. Receiving feedback is by no means an indication that you’re a bad leader, but merely an opportunity for you to continuously grow.

Listen and understand

Now that you’ve avoided reacting negatively, are thinking rationally, and remember that this is beneficial for you, it’s time to engage in a productive, thoughtful conversation. Listen to the person closely without interrupting, and try to understand their perspective. When they’re done, mirror back what you heard. For example, “Here’s what I am hearing you say…”. This will make the person feel comfortable to continue being honest with you. The more information you get, the more effective your plan will be to address it. Be sure to thank them for sharing. Expressing appreciation doesn’t mean you agree with them, but it does show you acknowledge their efforts.

Reflect on constructive criticism and ask questions

Now it’s time to process the feedback, clarify, and share your perspective. If you genuinely disagree with the constructive criticism, it’s ok to say that. For example, “I didn’t realize this is how it made you feel, and I’m glad you told me. From my perspective, I feel that…”. This step is also about deconstructing the feedback and ask for specific examples to understand the issue. For example, “Can you share where in the meeting you felt I reacted this way?”

Make a plan

After the conversation, go somewhere you feel at ease to process what you heard. Following that, focus on fixing the issue, and make a plan. This will help you focus on what you can control, rather than feel bad about the situation. Once you’ve learned everything you could from the situation, and figured out what you’re going to do about it, there’s no point left to ruminate. You’re ready to let it go, and move on.

Work on building a growth mindset

Many of us have a hard time taking criticism, even constructive criticism. Yet some of us thrive on it. The former has what’s called a “fixed mindset,” while the latter has a “growth mindset.” People with a growth mindset focus on positive change and personal growth, and are able to see feedback as an opportunity for improvement. You can learn how to develop a growth mindset here.