How Thick is Your Skin? the art of handling criticism

It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.

Disraeli

No one ever erected a statue to a critic.

Fred Smith

It happens to all of us…and the longer and higher you serve in Criticismleadership the more common is the experience. Leadership in any organization and at any level is subject to critique, second-guessing and outright criticism. It simply goes with the territory. Whether the venue is a small non-profit organization or a multi-national for-profit business; a church or civic organization; your decisions and conduct as a leader will be examined, analyzed, scrutinized and criticized.

The only way to avoid this appraisal is to “…say nothing, do nothing and be nothing.” Stay out of the fight and maintain the status quo and you’ll be left alone. But if your vision for the future includes venturing into uncharted waters don’t be surprised when your leadership is  under attack and the torpedoes of criticism explode all around you.

Criticism can either be just or unjust; objective or totally unfounded; constructive or pernicious. But whether the motivation behind the criticism is envy or deep loving concern, the personal injury that is caused pains us just the same. The motive behind the disapproval is almost immaterial, as your response is limited to that which you can control – your reaction. How are you going to react to criticism? How are you going to handle it? Let me suggest four principles:

1.  Consider the Source

The first step in handling criticism is to wisely consider the origin. Criticism can spring from a variety of sources: superiors, subordinates, peers, friends or the public. And your reaction and appropriate response will be determined by considering the source.

Frequently jealousy, anger, complacency or hostility motivates criticisms. There is a marked criticsdifference between genuine, constructive reproach prompted by a loving concern from a friend and the habitual complaining from a malcontent. Chronic critics are those individuals who go out of their way to find fault with fresh ideas, new procedures or original thinking. They tear down rather than build up and in the process often attack the individual rather than the issue at hand. You’re familiar with their rhetoric: “It’ll never work,” “We’ve never done it that way before,” “It’s not our responsibility,” “We’re doing just fine without it,” or “We can’t afford it.”

Some people who criticize may simply be expressing a negative outlook on life (Remember, out of the overflow of one’s heart the mouth speaks, Matthew 12.34). People who hurt the most often hurt the most! The sting of unexpected criticism from an unexpected source may reveal deep personal struggles. Take the time to investigate.

2.  Maintain your Dignity

When criticized our natural reaction is to become defensive and fight back, offering excuses for the behavior under attack. Defensiveness almost always results in an emotional reaction rather than a rational response. Resist the urge to lash back or to launch a counterattack. If you first keep your mouth shut, you’ll never regret what you didn’t say!

3.  Consider the Observation

It’s hard to see reproof as anything other than a threat. But if we ate to grow and develop as a leader, we need to see beyond the criticism and consider the truth behind it. Is it possible that the criticism is justified? Could this possibly be used to sharpen my effectiveness as a leader?

Robert A. Cook, former president of King’s College in New York, told the story from the early years of his ministry. He had been receiving some rather pointed criticism and he sought the counsel of pastor friend, Harry A. Ironside. Pouring out his heart, Dr. Cook asked what he should do about the accusations being made against him. Ironside responded, “Bob, if the criticism about you is true, mend your ways! If it isn’t, forget about it!”

The only worthless mistakes are those from which we do not learn. Proverbs 12.1 speaks plainly: “…he who hates correction is stupid.” Even under the most negative and unfair circumstances we can grow and criticism can bring new insights to ourselves and our organizations.

4.  Exercise Grace

Relinquish your right to revenge. Don’t seek retaliation. Remember the biblical counsel, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15.1) Practice “grace living.”

Twenty-sixth US president Theodore Roosevelt wisely evaluated criticism when he observed, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly…Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Mark it well, if you are trying to accomplish anything great, you will be criticized by those that are doing nothing. Your motives will be questioned; your character may be assaulted. But as leaders we need to develop the self-confidence and thick skin so to manage criticism constructively. If you are overly sensitive to the opinions and criticisms of others, you’ll end up carrying a burden of guilt and inadequacy that will manifest itself in ineffectiveness. Keep in mind that God’s love for us is based on His faithfulness, not our ability to be perfect. And a purpose derived from a sense of calling from God will help provide you with the courage to confront criticism. Ignore the empty faultfinding; refuse to be swayed by others’ chiding but never disregard the dream the Lord has given you!

Stay the Course,

Dr. Greg Morris

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