Why Founders Shouldn't Fear Harsh Criticism

A proactive approach to criticism not only shows maturity and a growth mindset; it can head off the panic of unexpected feedback.
Why Founders Shouldn't Fear Harsh Criticism
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Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
6 min read
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No one likes to hear that their work has fallen short. Whether it’s a harsh product review or a less-than-thrilled client, criticism rarely feels good. I’ve also found that high achievers, including entrepreneurs, are extra sensitive to tough feedback. However, learning to embrace criticism can give your business an edge.

According to William B. Irvine, a professor of philosophy and the author of Why Insults Hurt, the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics saw criticism as a personal favor – but only when it came from trusted friends and mentors. In other words, consider the messenger. Difficult critiques from people who know, love, and respect you represent an opportunity to improve. These people want you to succeed, and they can often see into your blind spots.

On the other hand, feel free to ignore that nasty Instagram post from a private account. As Roman emperor (and noted Stoic) Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”

Once you’ve separated the allies from the antagonists, your goal is to see criticism as a gift. So, the next time you receive a tough critique, take a deep breath and use the following strategies to transform feedback into opportunity.

1. Recognize why you feel flustered

Raise your hand if criticism immediately makes you feel hurt, defensive, scared, or angry. If your palm is up, that means you’re human – and you can blame your brain. Your amygdala, specifically.

Dr. Martin Paulus, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, says the amygdala is one of two brain regions that process criticism. It’s also responsible for our fight or flight response. When we receive negative feedback, the amygdala triggers a series of physiological changes including raising heart and metabolic rates, dilating pupils, and increasing blood flow to the muscles.

Our ancestors developed these physical responses to battle or outrun danger. And while a bad review rarely puts our lives at risk, our bodies can’t always tell the difference. That’s why we feel so threatened. Once you know that your first reaction is entirely natural, you can take a moment, let the feelings dissipate, and respond with a clear head.

Related: How the Most Successful Leaders Deal with Criticism

2. Untangle yourself from your work

Most entrepreneurs feel deeply connected to their businesses. After all, it’s more than a job; your blood, sweat, tears, and livelihood are on the line. It can be tough to separate yourself from what you’re building. I understand. I started my company, JotForm, 14 years ago. By now, both the company and our 140 employees almost feel like an extension of myself. But I know they’re not the same thing.

Consider that a business critique is exactly that: feedback about your business. It’s rarely a teardown of your personal shortcomings – and if it is, you might want to tune the critic out. Try not to take professional criticism too personally. Also, remember that no one is perfect. Even if the criticism involves your leadership or something close to your heart, it’s still about the work. It doesn’t negate your intrinsic value.

3. Swap negative self-talk for self-compassion

It’s easy to beat yourself up after getting tough feedback. We’ve all said things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of uttering to a friend or co-worker, let alone think in the first place. Here’s where self-compassion comes in – and it’s not the same as self-esteem, which is about judging ourselves in relation to others.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas, Austin, self-compassion enables us to be kind to ourselves at all times, whether we’re succeeding or struggling. Neff says self-compassion has three components:

  • Kindness – supporting yourself when you hit obstacles, rather than being self-critical
  • Humanity – realizing that everyone flounders and fails sometimes
  • Mindfulness – stepping back and gaining perspective to balance your thoughts

Many of us learn from an early age to use self-criticism for motivation. We’re taught, either overtly or subconsciously, that if we don’t punish ourselves, we’ll get lazy and complacent. We’ll lose our competitive edge. However, research shows that self-compassion is a far more effective motivational strategy, because you’re giving yourself the support you need to grow and improve.

Related: Are You Brave Enough to Listen to Constructive Criticism?

4. Revisit your vision and values

Criticism can be disorienting, especially if you felt like you were on the right track. Should you trust this person’s opinion? And even if they have your best interests at heart, are they right? That’s why it’s essential to clearly articulate your vision and values, both for yourself and your business. Then you can use them as a litmus test when you feel adrift.

In this way, criticism can also reinforce your business direction. It gives you a moment to step back and assess what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. Embracing the feedback is your chance to take stock and move forward even stronger.

5. Ask for upfront feedback

If you’ve mastered the steps above, it’s time to get bold. Request feedback when someone is clearly unhappy – even before they offer the critique. This is a powerful strategy in both personal and business scenarios. For example, we know our users are unhappy if they cancel their subscription, so we ask what we could have done better. In many cases, it’s an issue we can easily fix. We reach out directly, address their concern, and they usually return to us.

A proactive approach not only shows maturity and a growth mindset; it can head off the panic of unexpected feedback. I’ve also learned that criticism can strengthen relationships. When we handle customer complaints with care and attention to detail, these people often become our most outspoken advocates. The same can happen with clients, friends, co-workers, and funders. Listen and respond with grace. Criticism might not feel good in the moment, but you have the power to control how you respond – and to learn from even the toughest feedback.

Related: Take the Sting Out of Constructive Criticism With These Helpful Tips

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