Criticism vs. Feedback

No one wants to hear they did something wrong.  It feels like failure. The first time (and perhaps every time) we have a negative comment on an observation, we want to protest.  Our first reaction is to defend, even if we only do this mentally.  At that point we’ve shut down.  We can’t take in anything beyond the statement that hurt, and sometimes what is offered as feedback is taken as criticism. The reverse can also be true, but it happens less frequently.

In a blog post, Dan Rockwell offers advice on How to Respond to Unfair Critics Without Bloodshed. I appreciate his observation that “criticism is a leadership opportunity.”  Remembering this will help you do a better job at managing your responses. Here are some of his recommendations:

  • Reflect don’t retaliate – Pause and think. The “critic” may be right, in which case there is something important to learn. Focus on the message, not the delivery.Taking a moment to pause will help. What caused the critic to come to that conclusion? How could you have prevented this? Is there something the other person missed or was unaware of?
  • Compliment don’t criticize – By acknowledging the critic, you take the sting out of their words and change the relationship dynamic. You acknowledge the value of what they offered as well as the person offering it. As a result, you may create an ally.
  • Perceive, don’t pontificate – A critic’s words say more about them than they say about you. Instead of responding, you can use this as an opportunity to learn about the critic from the criticism. You may hear what the person is passionate about and that will give you clues to working with them in the future.
  • Fuel up, don’t fall down – Embrace the learning opportunity and move forward. Why give someone the power to make you retreat? You know you’re a leader. Just because a program or a project wasn’t perfect is no reason not to continue.

When you offer a comment on a project, think of how you are being perceived as the sender.  You may believe you are providing feedback, but that might not be what the receiver hears. The results can affect your success as a leader.

Consider what happens when you give feedback to students. Pressed for time, you may not remember to choose your words carefully.  You might say, “Refer back to the directions I gave the class.” You meant for the student to take more time before plunging into the task, but the student heard was criticism that they didn’t read closely enough. Their reaction, whether voiced or unvoiced, maybe anger and resentment or they feel crushed. Whichever it is, you have stalled their learning. Instead, offer a response aimed at support such as, “I love your eagerness. Do you think reviewing the directions again will help you be more successful?”

Angry students want to get back at you for causing them hurt. Crushed students decide they are incapable of learning and retreat.  And while one incident will not create lasting harm, repeated ones will. You may not know what else is going on for a student, but you do have an opportunity to create a supportive dynamic when they work with you.

You need to be equally watchful when speaking with teachers. Although you would never criticize a project they want to implement, if you attempt to suggest too many changes/additions to improve it, they are likely to hear implied criticism.  They won’t be back. The same is true if you become impatient with their struggles with new tech. Stay focused on what they are trying to achieve and where they want your help. Support their needs rather than changing them.

A good leader also asks for feedback. Be careful, however, to be certain you’re not really looking for compliments.  Asking a teacher, “How do you think this lesson went?” sounds like a request for feedback, but if all you want to hear are positive comments, it’s a setup for both of you. Instead, trust yourself and be brave enough to ask, “What do you think I could have done better?” You will get a more honest response.  One that you can use rather than one that makes you feel good.

Feedback is important. We need it to learn and grow. To be a strong leader, be aware enough to give feedback, not criticism, and look for ways to take criticism as feedback.

ON LIBRARIES: Dealing with Criticism

Last week I blogged about Dealing with Failure. This week’s topic is almost its twin.  Most of us hate to be criticized as much as we hate to fail.  Both are inevitable.  Some criticism will be formal, such as a bad observation or evaluation. Other times it will be informal, ranging from negative feedback from a teacher after doing a lesson (which also ties it to failure) to a denigrating comment on how easy your job is.

Like failure, it’s important to be prepared for criticism and know how to deal with it. Two common reactions can have an adverse effect on your leadership.  Going into offense/defense mode ignores what the other party said.  In the process, you are likely to escalate the event, say things you don’t mean, and rupture what should be a developing relationship.

The other reaction, often based on fear and embarrassment, is to curl up inside yourself and say nothing.  But it festers.  You hold inner arguments about what you could have said, alternating it with self-recrimination.

Does this sound like a leader?

Nobody’s perfect.  While the criticism may have inflated your supposed errors (and deflated your ego), there invariably is an element of truth in what is being said. It’s that element that is the true trigger to your reactions.

For example, perhaps you have a class getting rowdy at the end of the period.  You might have yelled at them or ignored it and waited for the period to end.  However, the teacher coming in saw an out-of-control class and possibly an out-of-control librarian and said you and the kids shouldn’t be behaving that way.  Well, that is true.  But you want to explain the situation, justify it. The list of reasons as to why it occurred can be extensive.  Whether you want to lash out in defense or just be tight-lipped, you are missing the point.

As with failure, this is an opportunity for reflection and self-assessment.  Maybe not immediately, but certainly before the day is over.  How did it happen?  What could you have done to prevent or reduce the situation?  How would you like to deal with it in the future? You learn more from what goes wrong than you do from what goes right.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of online posts on dealing with criticism from both the business world and psychology.  The one I feel did the best job is Laura Schwecherl’s How to Handle Criticism Like a Pro.

The first piece of advice she offers is to consider whether the criticism was constructive.  It’s easier to accept when you know the person is well-meaning. However even hurtful criticism may have a valid point – otherwise, it probably wouldn’t hurt. She follows that observation with a five-step action plan.

Listen Up: Again, assess whether the criticism was constructive or rude.  Have the courage to ask for clarification, particularly if you are unsure if it was only meant to be hurtful.  People tend to make a general critical statement.  You need more details to determine just where you missed the mark.

Respond Calmly: Really tough to do sometimes.  Whether you want to rant or disappear, you do need to respond.  You can say, “I appreciate your observation.”  You don’t have to do more, which is good since you probably can’t take it all in and make a reasoned assessment in the moment.  Later, when the critic is not around, analyze what you heard.  How much was true?  Was there a place to do it better?  In the best case scenario, you might even go back to the person and thank them for taking the time to give you valuable feedback.

Don’t Take It Personally:  This is a reminder that you are not a failure (see last week) nor are you a bad librarian, person, etc.  Focus on the specific information without generalizing. It was just one more learning experience.

Manage Stress: This is a challenge since you were probably stressed by your day before you were dealt this criticism.  Take a deep calming breath.  Or three or four.  Or some time in your office if that’s possible. As Judith Viorst so accurately put it in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, “some days are like that, even in Australia.”

Keep On Keeping On: As Schwecherl note, this was just one person’s perspective.  Sometimes you need to also check to determine whether the criticism was valid.  Just because someone says it, doesn’t make it true.  And tomorrow is another day.

All leaders get criticized. It comes with the territory.  Some is mean-spirited coming from envy, and some are accurate.  It may not feel like it in the moment, but you need good criticism to grow.  It’s hard to see where we miss the mark. It helps when the good people around us help us get back on track.