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How the Most Successful Leaders Deal with Criticism

Some types of criticism are more valuable than others.
How the Most Successful Leaders Deal with Criticism
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Whether you’re an aspiring leader or a seasoned senior executive, it’s unlikely that you’ve gotten this far without experiencing at least some (if not a whole lot of) criticism from people you know and work with.

In over a decade of working with leaders and managers across a variety of organizations and roles, I’ve observed that one of the key factors that distinguishes the most successful leaders is their ability to identify and leverage high quality criticism to push their work forward -- and to tune out and even ignore the rest.

Related: Tell It Like It Is: Radical Candor Is the Feedback Method Your Startup Needs

Sounds good, right? But, how do you make it happen? The answer is remarkably simple.

Essentially, there are four main types of criticizers, and their criticism can generally be categorized across two dimensions: supportive or unsupportive in terms of the tone, and helpful or unhelpful in terms of the content.

Here are the most effective ways for you to identify and respond to each of the four types:

The haters: unsupportive and unhelpful

Obviously, you want to avoid the unsupportive and unhelpful people like the plague. These people are haters and will only make you feel bad about yourself and what you’re doing. More often than not, they’re also people who’ve tried to implement some sort of change or improvement in their own life or work without success. The more similarities that exist between what you’re doing and what they’ve tried (and failed) to do, the more vicious they’ll be, since any success that you have will remind them of their own failure.

Interestingly, they may even be people whom you’re friends with. These people might be good at a lot of things -- making you laugh, managing the grill at a barbecue, or listening to you complain about your job -- but they are a destructive force when it comes to realizing your vision and goals, and I personally recommend taking care to avoid them when you’re looking for feedback.

Related: 5 Tips for Giving Better Feedback to Creative People

The affirmers: supportive, but unhelpful

Then there are the people who love and support you no matter what but who aren’t really going to have any useful advice for achieving your goals. These people are affirmers, and they’re awesome to have around when you need a break from the stress and you want to feel good about yourself. Don’t get me wrong, these people can play an important role in terms of emotional support, but be mindful about relying on them too much for honest feedback since doing so is unlikely to actually push you toward your ultimate vision.

The true criticizers: helpful, but unsupportive

Next, we have the true criticizers. These are generally smart people who can easily see holes and logical flaws in plans, and they have no trouble sharing them with you. However, they aren’t especially motivating or good at thinking about how to actually fix the problems that they spot. They tend to have high analytical abilities but lower relationship management skills. However, if you can take the “heat” from them, they’ll often provide useful feedback.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

The coaches: supportive and helpful

Finally, there are coaches. These fantastic creatures are a rare breed, but you’ll know them when you find them because they’ll give great advice about how to push your work forward and overcome obstacles. Coaches also tend to be highly motivating, and they are empowering people who inspire you to want to dig into the hard work ahead. Their approach is very much in line with the leadership philosophy outlined in my book The New Alpha, and their feedback is almost always the perfect blend of quality, honesty, empathy and kindness.

Coaches can be a powerful resource for getting high-quality feedback, but they can also hard to find. And they tend to be very, very busy since so many people rely on them, so be gracious about their time if and when you reach out.

At the end of the day, whether you love it or hate it, criticism is a normal (and sometimes even good) part of our professional development. Nevertheless, some types of criticism are more valuable than others, and the most successful leaders are able to identify these types, harness them to advance their success, and tune out the less useful types. 

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