How to Face Your Critics (HBR)

When people criticize you, what’s the best thing to do? Show up and face the music… and your critics!

Show up. Let your critics see you for the leader who you are. Adopting a “hide in the bunker” attitude only plays to them. It gives them free rein to paint you however they like — demon, demagogue, or do-nothing. By showing up you demonstrate that you are not afraid.

Be open. Shoot video of your meeting and broadcast it over a controlled-access website. In doing so, you demonstrate transparency and show your willingness to engage those who disagree with you. Videotaping also challenges people to be on their best behavior because they are being recorded.

Be cool. When people criticize you to your face, breathe deeply. As an opponent’s voice rises, lower yours. Speak deliberately and with a sense of calm. The more control you have of your emotions, the stronger you will appear.

Acknowledge your shortcomings. Standing up to criticism is an opportunity to admit your own failings. Do it with a sense of earnestness, that is, demonstrate through words and passion that you have done what you think is best. At the same time, do not be defensive. Act with honest confidence, even when you admit mistakes.

Criticize gently. The spotlight may be on you, but the heat is also on your critics. Give as good as you get, but do it with a sense of diplomacy. A good-natured jibe here or there is good for you as well as others. It reveals your humanity.

Smile frequently. Lighten things up by relaxing your facial muscles. This demonstrates that you are in control. Smile when appropriate, but never smirk. Don’t let them see you sweat, either. Smiling keeps you on a more even keel.

Leave them wanting more. Know when to close the engagement. You can ruin a good thing by hanging around on stage. It may be appropriate to meet and mingle off stage, in fact that’s a great idea, but know when to get off the stage and let others talk.

When the heat is on, showing your face to your sharpest critics is a great way to demonstrate that you are in control of yourself as well as your message. Standing up to those who oppose you is a strong measure of demonstrating that you have what it takes to lead.

First posted on 2/03/2010