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How to Filter the Critic

By cultivating the right attitude, gathering the right knowledge and developing the right skills, leaders can develop a critical skill that will aid their growth as well as their organization’s — dealing with criticism.

Leaders receive vast amounts of feedback, opinion, advice and suggestions. However, there is one type of feedback that stings — criticism. Cutting remarks and critical comments often have a debilitating way of penetrating our thoughts and emotions since such words transcend mere information and are perceived by us as personal affronts. While critical comments often contain valuable information, criticism — actual or perceived — is easily rejected simply because it is offensive to the recipient.

Managing criticism can be challenging from two perspectives. First, from a receiver perspective: providing a method in which criticism can be filtered, allowing transitional leaders to distinguish useful information from cutting remarks. Second, from a provider perspective: providing guidelines so a leader’s comments are less likely to be perceived as hurtful personal criticism, and therefore can help propel the organization forward.

Edward M. Glaser, noted expert on workplace productivity and critical reasoning and author of the study An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, proposes the ability to think critically involves three elements.

  1. An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences.
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning.
  3. Some skill in applying those methods.

The three elements of attitude, knowledge and skill are in order. If a leader’s attitude towards information is dismissive due to an actual or personal criticism and personal affront, the leader’s ability to use such information is diminished resulting in personal and organization blind spots.

There are two critics at work: external — the one providing the critique — and internal — ourselves. External critics provide information which is then filtered by our internal critic. The framework in which one filters critical comments is shaped by experiences, knowledge and judgement, which are coupled with prudent risk assessments. It is important to note that second guessing and criticism are not exclusive to external critics, but they are part of each leader’s internal critic. As a result, it is impossible to actually silence critics, nor should we.

Instead, we should develop the skill to filter the good from the useless. That means:

  • Gain perspective. Does the person have expertise an any area of their critique? If so:
    1. Determine the person’s intent.
      1. Does the person fully understand the organization’s mission?
      2. Has the person historically exhibited a willingness to serve the organization and help those in it achieve desired outcomes, even at the expense of their personal gain?
  • Have their previous suggestions regarding the organization been proven useful or “right” in the past?
  • Segregate comments into distinct critiques, assisting the source to do so if they are unable or unwilling to do so. As each comment is considered, do you agree with the comment’s merit as it relates to the organization achieving its mission?

Consider the source in terms of intent and reliability, then put the specific critique into the following matrix:

Now, when it comes to feedback, it’s usually easier to give than receive. An effective leader understands those receiving critiques also filter information in a manner that may lead to the feedback being misconstrued.

  • Therefore, when giving critiques, an effective leader should do exactly what they expect others to do. Be as specific as possible, and tie critiques to the organization’s mission. Create the framework for the recipient developing viable alternatives, and avoid comments that might be considered personal affronts, as those aspects can be handled differently/delicately another day. By doing so, leaders model the positive manner and tone in which feedback should be given and received in the organization.

Transitional leaders move organizations forward. This naturally invites criticism since change is often messy, and some people are simply better at adapting to change than others. Developing the attitude, knowledge and skill to distinguish useful critical reasoning from criticism allows for absorption of all feedback while setting the manner and tone for how information is shared to others throughout the organization.

Effective leaders are not thick-skinned, it’s just the opposite. Since the organization is dear to the leaders’ heart, the effective leader realizes their own soft spot to criticism and uses a filter. The result is personal leadership development as well as organizational advancement.

J. Hall C. Thorp is a partner in Trinity Research, LLC; a consulting and private investment firm located in North Carolina. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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