5 Right Ways to Respond to Criticism

Let’s be honest! Criticism can hurt. No one enjoys hearing something negative about themselves or finding out that something you do isn’t perceived as wonderful by others as you hoped it would be. Criticism, however, is a part of leadership and, if handled correctly, doesn’t have to be a bad part of leadership. There is usually something to be learned from all criticism. Allowing criticism to work for you rather than against you is a key to maturing as a leader.

Recently I posted 5 Wrong Ways to Respond to Criticism. A companion post is in order.

Here are 5 right ways to respond to criticism:

Consider the source – In a stakeholder sense, how much influence and investment does this person have in the organization? This might not change your answer but may change the amount of energy you invest in your answer. Our church meets in two schools, for example, so if the Director of Schools has criticism for me I will invest more time responding than if it’s a random person who never intends to attend our church.

Listen to everyone – You may not respond to everyone the same way, but everyone deserves a voice and everyone should be treated with respect. This doesn’t necessarily include anonymous criticism. I listen to some if it, especially if it appears valid, because I’ve learned from that too and always wonder if my leadership prompted an anonymous response, but I don’t “criticize” leaders who don’t. I don’t, however, weight it as heavily as I would criticism assigned to a person. (Feel free to leave a comment about anonymous criticism and how you respond.)

Analyze for validity – Is the criticism true? This is where maturity as a leader becomes more important, because there is often an element of truth even to criticism you don’t agree with at the time. Don’t dismiss the criticism until you’ve considered what’s true and what isn’t true. Mature leaders are willing to admit fault and recognize areas of needed improvement.

Look for common themes – If you keep receiving the same criticism, perhaps there is a problem even if you still think there isn’t. It may not be a vision problem or a problem with your strategy or programming, but it may be a communication problem. You can usually learn something from criticism if you are willing to look for the trends.

Give an answer - I believe criticism is like asking a question. It deserves an answer even if the answer is that you don’t have an answer. You may even have to agree to disagree with the person offering criticism. By the way, I save answers to common criticism received because I know I’ll be answering that same criticism again.

The picture with this post is from one of my favorite movies “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In this scene, George Bailey responds to criticism that the Bailey Building and Loan is going to collapse. I love how he takes the criticism serious, considers the importance of the critics, responds as necessary, attempts to calm their fears, and refocusses on the vision. What a great leadership example during times of stress! Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it points to a reality that happens everyday in an organization. Many times people simply don’t understand so they complain…they criticize. The way a leader responds is critical in that moment.

What would you add to my list? Where do you disagree with me here? I’ll try to take the criticism the “right” way!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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28 thoughts on “5 Right Ways to Respond to Criticism

  1. I love all of these. Tying in with Analyze the Validity, I also like to Evaluate the Emotion. Often behind a complaint is a deeper-rooted emotion that the person isn't able to express (fear, disrespect, discouragement, etc.) A statement like "Our church shouldn't grow " may actually mean "I am afraid of losing close friendships". Personalizing the complaint can help us to see someone through more loving eyes and find a valid concern to address behind an otherwise easy to dismiss complaint.

  2. I love all of these. Tying in with Analyze the Validity, I also like to Evaluate the Emotion. Often behind a complaint is a deeper-rooted emotion that the person isn't able to express (fear, disrespect, discouragement, etc.) A statement like "Our church shouldn't grow " may actually mean "I am afraid of losing close friendships". Personalizing the complaint can help us to see someone through more loving eyes and find a valid concern to address behind an otherwise easy to dismiss complaint.

    I might push back on Consider the Source a little. Should we look at how much we want to invest in a person / group as much as looking at what they invest in the church? After all, if society is critical of my church (people that don't invest anything in it), aren't those still the people we should most be trying to reach – those who don't know Christ? Even if they critique the church for seeming unfriendly but haven't even been in a small group or visited, that still tells me we need to communicate that better to the outside world.

  3. I have to agree on the part of listening to everyone. I have found some of the most wonderful wisdom from some of the most unlikely sources!
    Twitter: bryankr

  4. This is good stuff and as a younger leader in my church I am always benefiting from wisdom like this. So crucial too! Thanks Ron! Keep it coming!
    Twitter: RubenC121

  5. Just an addition to number one – Considering the Source: Sometimes criticism is given in the form of feedback because it is the first instance of a problem that may have deeper roots that affects the corporate body. A great example would be a pastor who is quoting a portion of another pastor's sermon or book where the quoted information is not entirely biblical. In this case, both are at fault for lack of discernment, but the former guiltier than the latter.

  6. Ron – Some have refused to respond to criticism that is not based in relationship. Especially with respect to criticism coming from external so called "Heresy Hunters." But you seem to be saying that all criticism should be responded to. Seems to me that a Pastor/Leader could end up losing focus on the task at hand and end up spending all their time responding to critics/defending themselves and their position. I wonder what your take on this would be?

    Thx – Brad

    • That is very true. I believe sometimes we are clouded by relationships. If they "like" us many times they won't tell us the whole truth for fear of hurting our feelings.

  7. Thanks Ron – I needed to read this.

    Been criticised very heavily recently, and it is hard taking responsibility and not slinging mud back in return, but it is necessary and also the way a real leader responds.

    Scott

  8. When we are criticized, the response can be “Value-the-Other-Person’s-Perspective” approach when we feel that it is constructive and healthy. But, when we can understand that it was made with malicious and evil intention, we can safely ignore the same. I believe that we should not be oversensitive in responding to criticisms. For it is said in Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 that, “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you— for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others. “

    The unfortunate but unavoidable fact of the matter is criticisms are going to come our way. When they do, it’s okay to admit that it hurts. However, we don’t have to get upset about it. We can choose to not be offended. It is better to remember that you should “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” as spelt out by Colossians 3:13.

  9. I suppose for me it really depends about how criticism is delivered. I am a huge believer in the importance of kindness. With that being said I completely agree with your analysis. I would like to make a list of your dos and don'ts for responding to criticism and keep them close by for moments when my feelings get in the way of my brain. Thanks!!

    • I like kindness too. I suspect you are a "Feeler" on the Myers Briggs though…probably appreciating kindness even more than I do. I'm more truth over tact, so I can usually filter the message through even when the delivery method isn't as kind as I would prefer.

  10. As far as the anonymous criticism is concerned:
    It's really hard to respect someone who remains anonymous yet criticizes. But sometimes it's the only way to get honest feedback. When I have a team member who comes to me with criticism about another team member, I have to weigh their criticism and act. But I also deal with their unwillingness to confront the situation.

    I'm curious as to your answers to criticism. Most of the time, it takes me a while to even process it. I think I initially come of as not taking it seriously.