Leadership Caffeine-Coping with Critics in the Workplace

image of a coffee cupIf the flak is heavy, you’re near the target. (No flak, no target) –Eric Lieberman and Paul Byrne “Lessons from the Memphis Belle”

A retired senior executive offered to me that the biggest accomplishments of his teams during his career were preceded by the loudest and often personal gibes of his critics:

“It was surprising and disappointing that supposedly rational people and colleagues would work so hard to attack me as a means of attacking my ideas and the programs of my teams. I turned that disappointment into anger and then finally resolve to push forward. The critics provided the fuel for our ultimate success.”

Actors, writers and artists aren’t the only ones who have to cope with the slings and arrows of outrage or superficial praise from those looking in from the outside. As a business or function manager and someone responsible for leading others, those ready to offer their thoughts on what you’re doing wrong are never far away.

Push beyond the edge of the status quo and the critics multiply. Propose something unique and the background chatter heats up.  Hire talent that doesn’t fit the culture’s preconceived notion of “normal” and you’ll fuel the gossip fires.

While the volume and severity of the flak varies from organization to organization, it’s always there…sometimes a bit more stealth-like and at other times visible as a full-scale onslaught of criticism. When the flak gets heavy, it’s important to have a good coping strategy.

7 Ideas to Help You Deal with the Flak and Keep on Flying Towards Your Target:

1. Recognize that workplace criticism is often about fear of change and less about alternative ideas.  Never discount the gravitational pull of the status quo. When you threaten this force with change, fear promotes a variety of reactions, including criticism.

2. Beware cultivating a sense of creeping self-doubt when faced with criticism. Critics are great at making us doubt ourselves. Remember the benefits you are chasing and just focus on executing your mission.

3. Resist the urge to immediately fire back after receiving a barrage of criticism. If you perceive you must engage with a critic, choose a time and place when you’re not emotionally agitated. Above all, back away from the keyboard and avoid crafting that angry e-mail response you’ll regret as soon as you hit send.

4. Respect constructive criticism and alternative ideas from your stakeholders. Seek out the critics offering this form of input and strive to understand and where appropriate, incorporate their perspectives. Dialogue reduces friction.

5. Don’t be naïve and tune out the critics with political heft. These individuals merit attention and engagement. Start face-to-face and focus on uncovering interests, not arguing over positions.

6. Know that some critics just want to be involved. In your best Art of War approach, bring a critic on to the project team and give him or her an opportunity to contribute.

7. Resist bowing to the tyranny of consensus to silence the critics. Too many managers respond to criticism by conceding on their vision and diluting their ideas to the point of uselessness. No one gains in this situation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Change of any form is difficult to realize in most organizational settings. It takes courage of conviction and a strong dose of self-confidence to absorb the flak from the naysayers. Cultivate an active coping strategy to dodge, deflect or counter the flak as the situation merits.  And remember the target of your mission. If you’re taking flak, you must be getting close!

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More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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