The higher we rise in leadership, the more we can expect there will be someone with a contrary opinion to criticize us. These opinions may come from a place of genuine concern, jealousy, or, most often, simply a different perspective. Sometimes it’s hard to know the motivation from which a criticism originates, but the end result looks the same: “I wouldn’t have done it that way!” Are you frustrated by someone who has applied a subjective or questionable standard to label you as out of line? What if this someone has authority over you and their subjective opinion becomes the standard when your advancement is concerned?
I remember walking into the executive office of a major corporation during one of my first assignments as a management consultant, bubbling over with new ideas. After my presentation, the head of the corporation looked me straight in the eyes and said, “If you wish to be taken seriously, you need to learn to breathe and not act like a bulldozer in a china shop.” Needless to say, I was taken aback. Not only had he declined to give any feedback on the substance of my ideas or the value of my presentation, he had directed a personal criticism toward me suggesting that I couldn’t be taken seriously. I was angry, hurt, and confused all at the same time. Surely, I thought to myself, he must have a problem with women in leadership. How unprofessional to make it personal and not even comment on the substance of the ideas that I presented!
As is often the case when we receive criticism, I didn’t know the true intention behind his words. Was he trying to help me? Deliberately hurt me? Maybe he was just expressing his frustration with my actual presentation, or maybe he was expressing his frustration with me and my personal style. It was impossible to know, yet I spent a lot of emotional energy trying to figure it out, often attributing the worst possible motives to him, which in turn just made me angrier. The whole process was a waste of time and energy and didn’t serve to better me in any way. As I gained more experience as a management consultant, though, and was inevitably exposed to more and more criticism from various sources, I learned that criticism could actually be my friend, serving to strengthen me and my work.
Use Criticism for Your Benefit
One of the tools that helped me see this was something my old company called "The Murder Board." This was a process that my company used that allowed peers and supervisors to kill your idea for the purpose of helping you think through its weaknesses. No one viewed criticism as negative but as an avenue to polish our ideas in order to present it in the best way possible to a client. Criticism was helpful to our work, not a personal attack on our character. It didn’t matter whether the giver of the criticism intended for it to be constructive or not. With each criticism, the receiver would view it through the lens of improvement. Taking it personally simply wasn’t an option.
Of course, that can often be easier said than done. Especially for women in ministry where our work is often connected to our deepest values, it’s hard not to take criticism personally. But in order to use criticism to strengthen us and our ministry, we have to break away from this mindset and reeducate ourselves to operate under a different set of rules. We know we can’t control what other people say, but we can control how we respond to it. Next time you hear a criticism, whether or not you feel tempted to take it personally, force yourself to view it just as a learning experience. Even when it’s hard to know what the giver really meant or intended, taking this mindset will allow us to harness the power of criticism to improve ourselves without letting it derail us from the mission that God put us on this earth to accomplish. As my mother used to say, “When you hear criticism, learn to hear it as words from a friend who is trying to help you. Most people don’t care enough about you to say anything. They’ll just stand by and watch you fail.”
A sure way to sabotage ourselves as women in leadership is to focus on the hurt instead of learning from the message. When we are hurt, our tendency may be to retaliate and to shoot the messenger. Before we know it, we could find ourselves in the middle of a mud sling! Instead of responding from hurt feelings, we can respond as a researcher assimilating new findings to become more effective in our work. Perhaps someone is not 100 percent correct in their evaluation of you, but is there any percent of truth in what they are saying? When we can find the nugget of truth, we can use criticism to sharpen our focus and refine our strategy.
When I first started a non-profit organization, someone accused the staff of being self-promoting. I could have written off their criticism by saying, “What do I care what they think?” Instead, I decided to form a strategy of growth that used their criticism as ammunition. I challenged the staff to prove their purity by raising their own support. Their willingness to do so touched a supporter deeply, resulting in a gift to the ministry that helped cover our payroll. What someone meant for evil, God transformed for good. Over the years God has taught me criticism cannot stop God’s mission, but it can give us clarity and inspire greater support from those who watch us persevere.
Criticism can be our best friend if we let it. The next time you hear criticism, say, “thank you,” and use it as a missile to propel you forward in God’s mission.