Monday, February 27, 2012

Growing a Thick Skin

One thing that is guaranteed, regardless of your field of leadership, you will be subject to criticism. Often it's the way that we respond to our critics that can determine whether we succeed or fail over the long term.

A lot of leaders are like the young man who's father gave him advice as he joined the military. He told him to "always get in the middle of the line and don't draw attention to yourself." That might work in the military, but it certainly won't work in leadership. The nature of the beast is that we are up front, making decisions, casting vision and being accountable. All of these things attract attention and criticism.

What are the keys to handling criticism and being healthy in leadership?

Recognize it as a normal part of the job.
You will be criticized. Don't be surprised when it happens. Not every decision you make is going to be popular with everyone. That's life. The greatest leaders were all the recipients of healthy doses of criticism. It didn't mean that they weren't good leaders, it meant they were doing something.

Look after your emotional health.
From my own experience, I have found that when I am emotionally healthy, it is much easier to take criticism in stride. Conversely, when I have allowed myself to be run down and have neglected myself emotionally, negative feedback has a much greater impact.

As leaders, we need to know ourselves. Recognize the signs that you are pushing your limits. Before you reach that point, take action.
  • Return to your strengths, those things that build your confidence.
  • Take a break if you can. Look toward the finish line, whether it be the weekend, the end of the assignment, or that much needed vacation. 
  • Turn to your support network. Who are those trusted people that you can rely on to pick you up when times get tough? 
  • Share the load. Delegate. We should do this all the time, but especially when we are overwhelmed, just remember to delegate, not dump.
Accept the pressure of the moment.
You are the leader. Don't run, hide or obfuscate. Face the challenge and deal with it accordingly. This is a particular challenge for those who don't like confrontation or difficult conversations but, as stated above, it comes with the territory. Face it and fix it.

Hear your critics.
Surprisingly, sometimes critics are our best friends. Winston Churchill said that “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Even our worst critics can provide us with useful information. When faced with someone who is irate or concerned, here are a few hints.
  • Act - don't react. Don't allow someone's childish behaviour to push you into acting childish yourself. Welcome their input and give them a fair hearing. I have found Proverbs 15:1 speaks very well to this situation: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Show grace. 
  • Consider the source. Is this person someone whose opinion you value? If so, be sure to listen intently. Often, however, when someone approaches a leader about an issue, it's not about the issue, it's about them. People are people, and all people have problems. Sometimes leaders make great targets for criticism because they are out front. And sometimes they are having problems with everyone and you're the only one they can come to. When criticism is completely unfounded, ignore it. 
  • Look for the nugget of truth. We can learn from almost everyone. See and hear through the bluster and try to find something of value to take away from your meeting. Invite your critic to help you with suggestions.
  • Thank your critic. This is difficult to do, but helpful. A wise leader I spoke to about an issue surprised me with this statement, he said, "Thank you for feeling comfortable enough to share your concerns with me." He gained a great deal of respect from me in a tough situation.
  • Win them over. Handling a confrontation well can often result in a much stronger relationship. As a Christian leader, I recognize that people are not my enemies, they're in need of God's grace, as am I.
Act on what you've learned.
When your employees or volunteers care enough to speak out about an issue, it means that it matters to them. Sometimes it means that changes do actually need to be made. When this is the case, actions speak louder than words. A leader is willing to respond when they see the need gains leadership points with their followers. Those who build a wall and ignore their critics will soon find themselves isolated.

Create the proper vehicle for input.
Here's a good question, when your people see something that needs to change, how can they go about providing that suggestion? Here's one suggested method. Communicate that you are open for suggestions. Tell your people that for every issue they recognize you would like them to provide two possible solutions or alternatives. This gives them permission to participate and may provide some great ideas. It will also likely help you to avoid some not-so-pleasant encounters.

Communication problems are one of the most common problems in organizations. People want their voices to be heard. For most people, I've found that their hearts are in the right place and they really want to help. Believe in your people, value them and listen to them. People will be either your greatest asset or your greatest liability, see them as the former.

Grow through the criticism.
Don't take it personally - all leaders are criticized. You will usually find that criticism can become a great tool for your personal growth. Early in my ministry I found that I was taking a lot of heat, and it bothered me. But when I really took the time to consider what was being said, I found much of it to be true. This resulted in some major changes in my life. If I had rejected the criticism outright, as many do, I would have put a cap on my own potential.

Ask yourself, what can I learn from this? What skill do I need that can help me to do better? If you're hearing the same criticism from different sources, you should seriously consider dealing with that issue. In all of these things, having mentors you can trust to share with is invaluable. Talk to them about what you're hearing, and ask them for honest feedback. Remember, "Iron sharpens iron." Sometimes the greatest opportunities come from uncomfortable circumstances.  

Related Articles:
Key Leadership Qualities - Communication
The Power of Words
Turning the Corner - How to Regain Momentum
Are You a People Person?

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