Recently we held a town hall to get feedback from our employees on what’s working and what’s not. Since this was an open forum, we had to be prepared to address both the positives and negatives. It can be difficult to accept critiques, but as a leader you must accept that some negativity is part of the job. So how do you do that?
Learn the difference between constructive and unconstructive criticism: Criticism can sting. In most cases we try our best, and when we aren’t successful, and worse, when someone recognizes that and tells us, it doesn’t feel good. But criticism, when constructive, can be very helpful. It’s how we learn and grow. Perhaps we didn’t even realize what we were doing wrong or how to do it better. When someone brings our attention to the issue, it allows us to improve. That is constructive criticism – well meaning feedback and advice intended to help the person receiving it. For example, “When you present you say ‘um’ often; one technique that can help with that is slowing down as you speak.” On the other hand, unconstructive criticism (and flattery too!) doesn’t provide any meaningful information or advice. You can think of this as the “teenager feedback” – “this sucks!” If it doesn’t answer why, what, how, or what next, it’s likely not constructive. Unfortunately, not much can be done with this criticism. While you can always ask for more information or suggestions, if the person can’t give it to you, you just have to move on.
Know that the loudest person isn’t always the voice of the people: You will never please everyone. It is not possible. That’s why we prioritize and compromise, because unfortunately we can’t have our cake and eat it too. However, just because someone voices their unhappiness, doesn’t mean their unhappiness is representative of the larger group. It’s critical to distinguish between a small group of particularly “loud” individuals and a brave spokesman of the larger group. So how do you hear past the loudest voice?
- Ask others – If you don’t know, ask. Survey others to see if they agree with the criticism. It is especially valuable to speak with people who you know will be honest with you.
- Ask for examples – If they can’t give you sound examples, then they might just be blowing steam.
- Listen to the whispers – Focus on the quieter voices, what are they saying?
- Be empathetic – Sometimes when someone is complaining they just need someone to acknowledge them. It doesn’t mean you think they are right, it just means you’ve heard them.
- Ask for suggestions – If someone is willing to bring up an issue, they should be willing to help address it.
It’s true, you aren’t always right: Everyone has to be wrong once in a while. We all make mistakes and leaders are no exception. We may have made a decision based on bad information or with unexpected consequences. It happens. The trick isn’t to always be right, it’s to admit when you’re wrong and work with your employees to create a solution. Your employees will respect your honesty and the initial negativity that may have arisen will quickly dissipate.
Holding an event, like our town hall, is incredibly valuable. Though you may receive some difficult feedback, it gives you the opportunity to hear what issues are most important to your employees and refocus your efforts on those. I appreciated everyone taking the time to attend and contribute to our town hall. As a leader, criticism will always be a part of your job, but it’s about honing in on the constructive points and making changes that can have a real impact.
This post’s title is a quote by Aristotle.