Dr. Laurence T. Spring has served as an educator for 30 years, including 15 as a superintendent. He is a consultant to organizations and schools, specializing in change management and equity issues. He writes about the obstacles that prevent effective change management and how organizations can overcome them.
Owning and running your own company means that you have a great deal invested in your endeavor. Not just monetarily, you also have emotions and your identity tied up with the venture.
When you are so entwined with your business,it can be easy to take complaints and criticism of your company as critiques of yourself; this is normal and natural. The most common response to criticism is defensiveness, dismissing it with a rationale or even bluster. And while this is normal and natural, it is a costly weakness for leaders looking to grow their organization.
No one knows your company better than you do, including what it is supposed to do. Your hyper clear vision makes it easy to dismiss criticism -- other people don’t really know what you are trying to do or how you are trying to achieve it. Unfortunately, the defensive response to criticism can be a leader's Achilles’ Heel. Ignoring or avoiding criticism can lead to a sense of overconfidence that both weakens your effectiveness and is off-putting to customers, and it will ultimately sabotage your relationships with staff and coworkers.
A different way to think about these complaint calls and criticisms is to consider them valuable opportunities for learning and growth. Rather than being impatient and defensive with a complainer, imagine being grateful for their feedback. Be conscious in recognizing that the complaint is not actually a threat to you or your status, and reframe it as an opportunity to learn. This shift in mindset can help you become a better leader and benefit your company, as well.
Mentally, the shift can be difficult, and it takes practice to become comfortable listening and being thankful. It will undoubtedly be hard to avoid explaining why things are the way they are, but in that moment, humble yourself and become the learner. This moment is about them teaching you what they are feeling, it is not about knowing your business better than you.
When you open yourself up to criticism in this way, three powerful things happen. First, You begin to understand how others experience you or your product in a way that you cannot, otherwise. It is very similar to the difference between knowing what your own voice sounds like because you have been speaking with it your whole life and listening to it played back for you. The difference can be profound. It is all too easy to become trapped by your own vision for your organization. Treating criticism as opportunity can help you improve the customer experience and connect more effectively with your audience.
Second, allowing yourself to listen to the criticism in an authentic manner will help you to see needs and solutions that were invisible to you before. By setting aside the urge to defend and explain, you can allow your brain to explore the potential of the “what if” and use the criticism to help you find a new path for increased effectiveness.
Last, opening yourself up to criticism and making yourself vulnerable to others engenders a level of trust and loyalty that no other leadership action can match. When your customers know that their voice matters and that you listen to their concerns, really listen, they will be loath to leave you for a competitor. Similarly, if you respond to criticism from your staff or co-workers with earnestness and not defensiveness, they will be more deeply invested in and committed to your company’s success. Everyone, customer or staffer, has a deeply held need to be heard and valued and nothing does that more than hearing them when what they have to say is difficult to listen to.
The next time you have an opportunity to receive a customer complaint or difficult feedback from someone, consider dropping your guard and thanking them for taking the time to give you the feedback, and then ask them to tell you more about their issue. You will find this openness to be beneficial to you, your staff and your organization.