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7 Strategies Smart Leaders Use to Handle Criticism

NUALA WALSH, CEO OF MINDEQUITY, BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, AND NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Sep 25, 2023

"What do you think"? "Tell me if you disagree." When you say that to investors, employees, or partners, is it an open invitation for honesty?


Inviting others to challenge strategy, critique designs, or evaluate proposals is fairly common if you run a business. It usually means you should expect criticism, justified or not. 


Although leaders expect criticism and intellectually understand its value, science shows that differing views are deeply resented. Who wants a contrary opinion? Most people react allergically. It's crushing. You only want to hear, "You're right!


"Why ask for feedback if you can't accept the criticism? How well leaders respond determines their success and influence on others, especially if it's public.


The Invitation to Challenge

The unexpected problem is the same feedback that leaders invite can also change their attitude toward the opinion giver.


Harvard's Julia Minson tested the effect of differing opinions on likability. In an experiment with pairs of participants, each read their partner's opinions about controversial issues like the death penalty, marijuana use, and trade unions. Each participant then ranked their partner. What did she find?


 Dissenters were less likely to be picked for the team, asked to represent the company, or approached for future advice. Unsurprisingly, we don't like others to disagree with us!


And well-meaning leaders penalize those with contrary opinions. It's unfair and inappropriate. Both the leader and the business lose.


Unaware of its psychological impact, people freely provide alternative opinions. Some want to look smart. Many believe they're helping course-correct a business and avoid errors. But most enthusiastic opinion givers underestimate how clumsy communication can deflate a leader's ego and trigger adverse reactions.


Many founders or business owners likely attribute their lofty position to skills and talent rather than luck or others' advice. It's called false attribution bias and acts as a defense against imposter syndrome.


Implications for Business Leaders

When an employee, investor, or client disagrees with you, it's a neon red flag. Research shows you'll like them less, rate them lower, and devalue their opinion -- even if they're an expert. Why? Because likability, or in this case 'dislikability,' is a stronger emotion than credibility.


In a small firm, disagreement creates disharmony, silence, and risk. People shut down and are more guarded. The risk of talent being sidelined, customers ignored, and innovative opportunities overlooked is guaranteed. Even minor sources of disagreement become a tension that can be disproportionately magnified.


Of course, smart business owners, entrepreneurs, and founders encourage healthy debate. An overly challenging personality or maverick may be initially disliked, but discordant views can fuel progress and spark innovation. Consider the achievements of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and James Dyson. All challenged conventional thinking and benefited society, customers, and their own businesses. Smart leaders are also emotionally intelligent and can tolerate adverse feedback.


How can leaders navigate the predictable emotional response to perceived negativity yet simultaneously encourage dissenting feedback?


Seven Ways to Handle Unwanted Criticism

As a global adviser and behavioral scientist, I prioritize avoiding psychological reactance when engaging with clients. Making feedback proportionate, constructive, and sensitive is a start. Several behavioral strategies can help leaders respond appropriately:


1. Expect it

Criticism hurts, but it's rarely personal. Valuable messages must be heard. Recall the swift downfall of former British Prime Minister Liz Truss, who refused to accept feedback. Learn from others' mistakes.  


2. Be open

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos offers his advice: "Listen and be open, but don't let anybody tell you who you are." Appropriate self-belief is the hallmark of successful entrepreneurs. Sometimes, it's better to take advice than to give it


3. Provide psychological safety

Making employees feel comfortable enough to disagree is an underestimated art. Isolate individuals who challenge just for executive attention.


4. Be receptive

When I worked with a strengths-based organization, weaknesses were minimized. Constructive criticism was encouraged, and infectious positivity contributed to a can-do culture. This also accelerated revenue as the business experienced a decade of unbroken growth.


5. Calibrate instinctI

t's normal to feel threatened or irritated by alternative opinions. Pause in the feedback moment and consider the broader picture. This tempers potential resentment toward the opinion giver.


6. Disagree in private

Encourage employees to avoid embarrassing colleagues and deliver messages carefully. Feedback is a skill. Some managers choose to disagree in private and respectfully challenge in public.


7. Reframe it

There's always more offense taken than given. Ascertain if comments represent criticism or just a distinct perspective. Differentiate between petty and productive messages.


Next time an employee, investor, or partner disagrees with you, pause long enough to appreciate the broader value to the organization and yourself. The opinion giver is also judging your credibility.


Anyone can criticize. Only some criticize constructively. But every leader must learn to proactively solicit feedback and deconstruct dissent to sustain respect and ensure the longevity of their business.


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