Saturday, April 24, 2010

Coaching Lessons: How to Respond to Criticism

The day before yesterday I wrote a post about persuasion in psychotherapy. Link here. Today I was reading John Baldoni's article on how best to respond to criticism in business, and I saw again that those of us who do coaching or therapy have much to learn from business coaching. Link here.

Baldoni is talking about leadership skills. He wants to help people develop theirs and to learn how to recognize them in other people. If we recognize that coaches and therapists also exercise leadership skills, we will have taken a step forward. And if we compare the right way to lead and to manage, then we will also understand why psychoanalysis has set such a bad leadership example.

Baldoni does not just address the way an executive or manager leads. He is thinking of the staff member who presents a new idea or plan in a meeting and receives a good dose of criticism. How he handles the criticism will show everyone whether or not he is ready to advance up the ladder of executive success.

Baldoni's point is simple: a good leader knows how to handle criticism. He can defend his idea without being defensive.

In his words: "Maintaining an even keel in the face of skepticism or even criticism is a vital attribute to leadership presence, the kind of aura you need to radiate if you ever hope to instill followership."

Everyone knows that you do not just lead by giving orders. You need to instill followership, the willingness of others to follow your lead. You project the aura that tells everyone that you are in charge by retaining your equanimity when being criticized.

Of course, being criticized is not the same as being insulted. Criticism casts doubt on your proposal; an insult attacks you. You must respect those who disagree with your ideas; you should not respect people who are trying to diminish your person. For now I will leave the question of dealing with insults aside and limit myself to the terms of Baldoni's article: you are presenting a new proposal and others disagree with you.

A good manager expects his staff to disagree, to criticize, and to challenge his proposal. An aspiring manager should show that he is comfortable hearing criticism. Without an exchange of opinions a manager will never be able to inspire others to do their best when they are called on to implement the new policy. If the staff or your colleagues do not participate actively in formulating the policy they will not have a stake in its successful implementation.

How does a manager deal with criticism?

First, he does not take it personally. He does not take it as a personal insult. He does not take it as a rejection of him as a person. If he does, he will become defensive. Even if he does not believe that he is taking it personally, if he acts defensively, everyone will understand that he is taking it personally. This will tell everyone that he is thinking of what is good for him, not what is good for the company.

Second, he does not let them see him sweat. He maintains his composure. He does not act as though he has never considered alternate points of view. He must maintain his composure even when receiving strong, blunt criticism.

And he does not hide under the table. A manager who is struck dumb, who has nothing to say when faced with criticism, is not a leader.

As Baldoni says, a leader must first show that he is in control of himself. If he cannot do that he will never be allowed to control others.

Often we believe that when someone responds to us with passion, we must counter his passion with our own.

And yet, if you walk into a meeting and see that one person is calm and focused while everyone else is lathered up or scared, then you will know who is in charge.

Third, a leader does not dismiss criticism out of hand. If you imagine that disagreement is illegitimate you are producing dissension, not comity. If you imagine that disagreement is a sign of mental illness, you had too much psychoanalysis

Confidence that does not respect different opinions is arrogance. It will try to bully others into acquiescing, but will end up producing drama, not teamwork.

Fourth, a leader must be willing to modify parts of his proposal to reflect the good points that are contained in the criticism. You cannot say that you are a great listener if you never change your mind.

Now, how do you develop your capacity for leadership? Baldoni recommends: preparation, generosity, and patience. As he says, these involve character building, and they will easily serve you in different contexts.

First, be prepared. It is not sufficient to have a great idea and to believe passionately in your idea. You need to have considered the possible objections and you need to be prepared responses to them. You do not want to look as though you have never given any consideration to alternative points of view.

This means that you need to put in the time and effort, not only to develop your proposal but to consider all of the alternatives.

Second, be generous. I have often made this point, and it cannot be made often enough. When you hear criticism you should make it a habit to express appreciation and to find some value in the objection. If you dismiss it out of hand, if you consider it to be illegitimate, you are saying that the person who offered it is worthless. Insulting your staff and colleagues does not advance teamwork.

Third, be patient. Do not expect everyone to agree at once. If your idea involves a disruption of the normal way of doing things, you need to realize that we tend to gravitate toward the familiar and away from the strange. You must be willing to give people time to think through your proposal and to make necessary mental adjustments.

This process involves negotiation, but, then again, all effective leadership and management does.

1 comment:

taiwan77 said...

Stuart, news tip. Maya Angelou the poet is now writing a national public poem about the Phoebe case, due out in the fall. google for more. true. -- dany bloom