Lately, I’ve been acutely aware of how people respond publicly to criticism. In particular, individuals who acquire leadership roles, attract notoriety or admiration, or champion innovation can’t avoid the attention of skeptics, who seem to show up late and disgruntled. Hazing is so predictable that it must serve a healthy purpose, which I’ve been haphazardly trying to pinpoint.
Criticism silences some people, makes fools of others, and somehow strengthens a third group. The phenomenon is probably what we enjoy most about reality shows, competitive events, political analysis, and debates on popular blogs. We watch to see who handles criticism graciously and who becomes unreasonably defensive. We applaud the confident comeback, and we shake our heads when ego overrides common sense.
Back in the ‘90s, when crafting mission and values statements was all the rage, I succeeded in having the token “willing to change in response to valid criticism” inserted in my organization’s operating principles. I can’t take credit for the word valid. Someone else suggested the modifier, because criticism that isn’t considered valid is simply annoying. No one really values going whichever way the wind blows, though plenty of people do it.
After very little serious contemplation of the function of criticism, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s a necessary obstacle in any person’s path to success. It functions as a gate because of the variety of responses it evokes.
Fear of criticism can completely halt an individual’s progress. It makes some people afraid to try. There wouldn’t be much fear of failure if it weren’t accompanied by criticism, either spoken or implied. The exception, of course, is the fear of failure with the risktaker’s death as a proximate result, assuming he or she wouldn’t care much about the critics after that.
Irrational or inelegant responses to criticism attract more faultfinding. Overreaction exposes individuals’ insecurities and sometimes drives them to avoid further vulnerability.
Openness to criticism—the ability to learn from it and remain undaunted—allows a relatively small number of people to succeed at competitive endeavors. We admire individuals who handle disparaging remarks with aplomb, and we can also learn from them. Grace under pressure is one of the easiest traits to mimic, because we elevate those who provide us with the finest examples of it.
Yes, you already know the easiest way to avoid criticism.