Dr. C: Unsolicited criticism

April 21, 2013 

“You’re wrong!” “I am not!!” “Yes, you are.”

How do you handle unsolicited criticism? It’s one thing to actively encourage the opposite view, to ask another person to give you some honest feedback -- but it’s a whole different thing when someone hits you from the back.

When you ask for it, you’re prepared; when it’s unsolicited, you’re under attack. And you know you’ll get unsolicited criticism. You can’t avoid it. You can’t please everyone all the time on every issue.

Of course, people who don’t “do” anything, don’t have to worry. But if you’re a parent or a principal, or a supervisor or a salesman -- or anyone who goes to work every day -- you have to “do” something. You have to make decisions; perform tasks, answer the phone, type input, file forms -- and someone’s always around to say: “Hey, you’re wrong.”

The tough thing about this, I have found, is that there always seems to be an element of truth in the criticism. I may not like it; I may feel it’s unfair. I may even decide to pay no attention to it whatsoever. But if I think about it, I’ll usually find little grains of truth like irritating piles of sand in my shoes.

In January 2003, I wrote an article on the Confederate flag and compared it to the swastika. I said both flags had noble beginnings. The Battle Flag of the South was the symbol of Southern heroism and valor until the KKK used it as a banner of segregation and black suppression.

The swastika was the symbol of goodness and truth for thousands of years before Hitler turned it into the symbol of Jewish hatred and death.

The feedback was instantaneous and violent. I was labeled: “slick, unfair and slanderous.” I was told I was ignorant and stupid and knew nothing about being born and raised as a white man in the South. “Making that flag comparison,” one reader said, “made you more racist than the KKK.”

Well, I was furious. I began preparing a blistering defense when my wife stopped me. “They’re right, you know,” she said, “You weren’t born here in the South.” Unfortunately, all of us do not have wives who are willing and able to give us the kind of feedback we need. So where do we find it?

All of us carry around a big bag full of weaknesses. Some of us talk too much; some of us don’t speak up when we should. Some are too aggressive; others are too easy. We’ve got control freaks at one end and hippies at the other. But who is brave enough to tell us the bad news?

Young Prince William of England went to an exclusive prep school the four years after the death of his mother, Princess Diana. The only boy who ended up giving him honest feedback was a poor peasant boy who started off hating the prince.

All the rest of his classmates were too afraid to confront him; they held him in a kind of “royal awe.”

They whispered behind his back, but would never tell him how they felt.

Doesn’t this sound a little bit like every organization? Whispers in the break room, but nobody tells the boss?

Whether you’re the boss or the banker, the beautician or the brain surgeon, learn to accept unsolicited feedback; it might sting and burn and smart and scar but once it heals, you’ll emerge a true leader.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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