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.

 

 

Advertisements

ON LIBRARIES: Dealing With Failure

Leaders take risks—and sometimes those risks lead to failure.  What do you do then? I know what you would tell your students, but are you taking your own advice?

As with everything in our world failures come in different sizes.  There are quiet failures and more public ones. A small quiet failure might be you set up a display of popular fiction from years ago – and no one has looked at it.  A more public failure would be you planned a short program for parents during a conference or back-to-school night and only one parent showed up.

It feels awful. If this was one of the first risks you took, no matter the size, you are apt to crawl back into the tried-and-true. Obviously, leadership isn’t for you.  Or you have no business playing “large.”  You are not at that level of leadership and never will be. Fear of failure stops many from becoming leaders.

If you fall back and believe that story, you are depriving yourself of the benefit of failure.  As you tell students, failing is a learning opportunity.  No one reaches success without failure.  And even those who seem to be highly successful leaders will fail at times.

I made several mistakes when working on the plans for a new library wing in one high school. I made several others when I did a renovation at another high school.  I failed at keeping the School Librarian’s Workshop going as an e-newsletter.  And even recently, my proposed program for the upcoming AASL Conference was not accepted.

Does that make me a failure? It depends on what I do next. If I decided, for example, that AASL members were no longer interested in what I had to offer, I could tell myself I’m a failure, but failing is not the same thing as being a failure. That only happens when you quit.

Each time one of your plans or ideas doesn’t succeed, you can use it to grow and be better. For AASL, I didn’t read some of the details on how the final programs would be selected. I needed to reach more of my contacts to ask for support and do so frequently.  I sent something out once and then voted.  Next time I can and will do better.  (That’s also growth mindset.)

Look at how you failed. What caused it? Did you make assumptions that proved erroneous? Should you have built more support before you began the project?  It may be painful initially to look back, but it’s the fastest route to future success.

Everyone, especially leaders, risks failure and the potential for losing confidence in themselves.  And that is the big danger.  When your confidence level slips, it affects every part of your professional (and possibly personal) life. You can’t afford to let that happen.  We are not alone in facing the challenge of coming back from failure and losing confidence in ourselves.

Jesse Sosten offers some compelling advice on How to Regain Your Confidence When It Falters.  He refers to this loss of confidence as “the dip.”  He suggests you “Leverage the Dip.”  By this he means, reframe it so you look at it as a sign you are poised for growth. Accept that “you are a work in progress.” After all, if you are not progressing, you are not growing, and as I’ve written here before, that means you are dying.

Sosten’s next recommendation is to Limit Your Inner Compromise. This is the part where you shut down and hope no one is noticing you and remembering the last idea you had that was a non-starter. Instead, be more aware of your reactions.  When you see yourself wanting to exhibit this kind of behavior, check in with your Mission, Vision, and Philosophy.  What do you stand for?  Speak up as needed.

Confidence is not developed overnight.  But you can lose it all in a moment if you aren’t prepared to deal with the fallout when things go wrong.  The fact is things do go wrong even with the best of planning.  Having a Plan B is a good idea, but even that might not work.   When it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to come up with and move forward on your next new idea.  The best way to have people forget about a plan that didn’t work (and for you to let go of your negative self-talk) is to follow it with successes.

 

ON LIBRARIES: Embracing Failure

You can’t escape failing.  Maybe the word “embracing” is a bit much, but whenever you try something new or different, the risk of failure is always present.  Knowing this is often what prevents you from trying. But there are lessons that come with each setback and the more you are willing to learn, the stronger leader you will be.

How would you speak to yourself if you were one of your students who wasn’t trying because of the fear of failure? You would tell them that failure is important and worth the effort.  Whether it is learning to ride a bike, throwing a curve ball, or playing chess, no one gets it right the first time. Frequently they don’t get it right the second time. I can hear you say the consequences of failing at those is quite different from what you would experience if something you tried for your library didn’t work, but what are your choices?  Taking a risk and possibly succeeding (particularly if you have thoroughly researched your idea) or staying where you are not advancing your program or your ideas.  I love the quote attributed to James Conant, Behold the turtle who only makes progress by sticking his neck out.”

Failure happens in the business world all the time on the way to success, and Lily Daskal, a leadership coach and author of The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness, explains Why It’s Important for Leaders to Fail Well. I love the idea of failing “well.”  She points out that beginning skiers learn how to fall safely.  We, too, need to fail safely, and not let a failed idea make us believe we are failures. Learning how to fail safely means we need to develop the right attitude towards failure – even welcoming it for the benefits it brings.  Daskal identifies seven benefits of failure.

  1. Failure keeps us focused on our strengths – It sounds counterintuitive, but that is what we need to do. It’s too easy to beat yourself up for the mistakes you made. Although you shouldn’t ignore them, also take stock of what you did right.  What were your strengths –and how can you utilize them in another project or improve this one.  What weakness did you exhibit?  Can you turn it into a strength?
  2. Failure teaches us to be flexible – Don’t give up on a good plan just because it failed. If it was worthwhile, how can you change it so that it does work? It’s a worthwhile skill to develop for several reasons. For example, you want to turn your library into a Learning Commons.  You approached your principal or superintendent enthusiastically and were shot down. Why? What reasons were given?  Money?  If so, consider revising your concept so it takes longer to complete and allows the cost to be spread out, or look for a grant to cover some of the funding needed.  Instead of nursing your wounds, get creative.  I had a superintendent who told me her first answer was always, “No.”  It got rid of the people who weren’t fully committed.
  3. Failure teaches us to rethink what we deserveIt’s easy to blame yourself for the failure. It gives you an excuse to quit and not try again.  That’s the real failure. Accept responsibility for why the plan or idea failed, but don’t take it personally.  It’s part of your growth. And if you’re still fully committed to the idea – you’ll find ways to make it happen.
  4. Failure reminds us that everything is temporary – When we fail, and we all do at some point, it’s vital not to think this is how it will always be. It’s been said that change is the only constant. As a leader, you need to be looking for any change in direction.  As I blogged last week, administrators come and go.  What your current one didn’t like, the next one might love, particularly since you learned from what didn’t work.
  5. Failure shows us it’s not fatal – The failure was yesterday. Today is a new day, and you are alive and well. If you try only a few projects, every failure looks huge.  Do more and the number of successes will outweigh the ones that didn’t work.  It’s how you build your “street creds.” You demonstrate perseverance by digging in and moving on.
  6. Failure disciplines our expectationsIt’s great when we get excited about introducing something new. However, our enthusiasm can sometimes blind us to what is realistic.  This doesn’t mean you don’t attempt big things. You don’t say, “They never want to try something new.”  It’s recognizing that not everyone sees the project the way you do. You need to create a foundation of support before you move into introducing your idea.
  7. Failure instructs us to keep tryingThere is wisdom in the adage, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.” No invention worked the first time it was tried. Leaders in every field know this. They don’t like failing, but they don’t let it stop them.

And here’s one from me:

Failure teaches us to understand our students better – I knew a math teacher who always underestimated how long it would take students to complete a test.  She was brilliant in the subject and couldn’t understand the difficulty many of her students faced.  Sometimes a person who struggled in school makes the best teacher.  Use your experience with failure to help students when they have trouble dealing with their own failures so that they too keep taking the steps that will lead to their next success.