19 March 2020

Facing criticism

I'm part of a committee that is on the side of the angels (of course), but has just come in for some sustained criticism. As with all criticism that is aimed at me, I was struck at first by how unfair it was.

Then I stopped and remembered my three interrelated rules of facing criticism. Since we live in a time when vicious criticism too often dominates public discourse, and leaders reserve the right to give as good as they get, I thought it might be a good idea to review these rules here, hoping that you will praise me to the skies feel free to criticize them and add some rules and experiences of your own.

First, harvest any possible useful information you might get from the criticism. This isn't as easy as it sounds, especially if the criticism, however fair, is delivered with unnecessary venom. I have to be willing to acknowledge my emotions but not let those emotions keep me from learning what I need to learn. The criticism may be right or wrong -- or a mixture -- but there is always something I can learn from it.

I once made a very controversial personnel decision toward the end of my time at Friends United Meeting. The incident that led to that decision, and my response to the incident, took place shortly before a meeting of FUM's board, at which my decision was roundly denounced by several weighty members. My position was all the more difficult because I was bound to keep some details private. I sat there (probably with my face turning visibly red), wondering how to persuade a roomful of upset people that I was right, before I realized that it was far more important to learn all I could from the situation. How had people found out about the decision, what could I have done better at each stage, what was I learning about the political realities I faced, and what did the whole thing look like to those who were not closely involved?

In any such situation, as I listen to the criticism, it's important to ask myself: should I be checking with my critics to make sure that I understood them correctly, and do they see me taking that good-faith step to learn rather than contradict?

If I correctly prioritize learning over self-defense, that doesn't mean that I cannot give additional information or correct critics' actual errors of fact. But that needs to be done with a servant's heart, not to protect my wounded ego.

Second, throw the criticism into the dustbin. I've kept faith with the critics, I've gained information, I've corrected actual errors. The criticism then has no more claim on my attention. It's history. Sometimes this is also easier said than done, and there is no shame in confessing my lingering pain privately with a trusted counselor, but I always found it good to begin by declaring my intention to banish the criticism, and my feelings about the critic, into eternal oblivion.

One of my favorite Angela Merkel stories came from a visit she made to the Kremlin back in November 2012. Discussing reductions in Russians' freedom of speech, the German chancellor advised Vladimir Putin not to view criticism as destructive: "If I were sulky every time I'm criticized, I wouldn't last three days as chancellor." I confess that it took me a while -- and a string of criticisms, some well-deserved -- to learn this lesson.

Third: if I am in leadership, facing criticism is part of my role, and I need to acknowledge this reality. In fact, if I am dedicated to my servant role, my willingness to face criticism squarely and ethically will be a blessing to the people I serve. In that controversy over my personnel decision, our good order as a Quaker organization required me to be accountable for my decisions. In any organization that values justice and transparency, there simply must be space to criticize leadership and its decisions, and the leaders' personal feelings cannot be allowed to reduce that space.

Did I choose that example of my FUM controversy to show me at my best? Maybe. I didn't choose to recount the time I lost my temper on the floor of Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM).

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