In my book of leadership fair play, a basic rule is praising in public and criticizing in private. Making people look—and feel—stupid or foolish or ill-advised (no matter how atrocious their offense) in front of others is just plain wrong.
So imagine my shock and surprise to have a project partner level some hard-hitting criticism my way during a conference call with the project sponsor. We had co-authored an article for online publication, passing the piece back and forth via email countless times as we edited and refined the content. Finally satisfied with our writing, my writing partner emailed the article to Betty*, the project sponsor, and scheduled a conference call with her to discuss next steps.
At the beginning of the call, we exchanged pleasantries. Then, without warning, my writing partner says, “I’m so sorry, Betty. This piece isn’t up to my standards. Jane used the wrong dash mark and made a grammatical error in the second paragraph.”
It was one of those moments when the world went into slow motion (like when you know you’re going to rear-end the vehicle in front of you), and images, thoughts, and feelings collide in your heart and mind. Unfortunately, my hurt and anger—in its incredible hulk-like wounded intensity—prevailed as these words by-passed all brain filters and tumbled out of my mouth in a most sarcastic tone, “Well, blah-blah name, thanks so much for correcting me… NOW!” One of those epic, awkward silences ensued. I can only imagine what Betty must have been thinking.
Since then, I’ve mentally replayed this situation several times. And my reaction is always the same: chagrin and regret that I didn’t take the high road and simply, and kindly, say “thank you for pointing out my errors.” I let my feelings of having been betrayed and unfairly one-upped win. Not one of my finer moments.
Sadly, the world is full of people ready to steamroll over you to increase their standing. Changing them is beyond your control, but what you do control is your reaction when you’re unexpectedly and publicly criticized.
My Three Learnings for Handling Public Criticism
1) Be gracious. Responding as I did only resulted in two people—rather than one—rolling around in the mud. My grandma always reminded me that honey attracts more flies than vinegar, and that old bromide will never be untrue. The vinegar pourers might get some momentary acclaim but let them. Take the high road—the spotlight may not shine as brightly there but you know you’ve done the right thing.
2) Take the criticism in private. Follow-up after the call, meeting, or encounter and ask your criticizer for more details as well as feedback on how you can do better in the future. Bring your honey, of course!
3) Be bold; make the ask. Ask that future criticism to be delivered privately. Your request might be ignored, but the important thing is that you stuck up for yourself.
*not her real name!
Graphic credit: Lit Drift