The Leadership Challenge: Criticism – 5 Tips!

The Point: Call it “constructive” or call it “transparent” criticism, but have you ever had a conversation with a stakeholder at work regarding how things could have gone better? If so, you’ve probably dipped a toe or two into the constructive criticism pond. So as a leader, how can you navigate such moments maintaining a results focus and positive atmosphere? The following post looks at criticism and provides 5 leadership tips to be successful… Enjoy!

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He Didn’t Take “Constructive” Criticism Well… Understatement!

Joe was a mid-level manager at a Fortune 1000 organization that participated in one of our leadership development executive coaching programs. He barely made the requirements for the high potential initiative, and as such struggled with several of the program topics. In particular, he struggled with the Communication Skills Training for Leaders topic, where on more than one occasion he became flustered with the content.

It was after one such “flustered” moments that we pulled him aside to share our perspective on his performance. Here’s how the conversation went:

  • US – “Joe, we wanted to touch base to see how you thought things were going?”
  • JOE – “Everything is going fine.”
  • US – “Interesting… Is there anything in the last section on Communication Skills Training for Leaders that you felt you could have improved on?”
  • JOE – “What? Improved on… I don’t think you can mess with perfection!”
  • US – “But if you could improve on perfection, because there are always opportunities to improve, what would you have done differently?”
  • JOE – “This is Bull Sh!t!”

And after that exchange Joe stormed off…

Constructive Criticism

Joe set the tone for a poor feedback improvement setting by believing that everything was fine, and that there could be no learning to improve moments to be had. While nothing said was hostile nor belligerent in nature, taking things out of context is often one of the biggest issues with receiving constructive criticism. So here are 5 tips to help you as a leader position your feedback sessions for greater success (and avoid those Joe-moments!):

Criticism Tip #5 – Your First Reaction is Wrong, so Stop!

When you give or receive feedback, it’s important to frame the conversation appropriately so that you provide the proper context. Doing so will allow you to set the stage for a good conversation (and conversely not doing so will set the stage for a bad conversation!) I encourage leaders to spell out how information shared is often taken wrong, so let’s talk about it as a part of pre-calling the actual comments. Establishing this expectation is a great way to insure constructive criticism is received as intended.

Criticism Tip #4 – Feedback is Beneficial

Why are you providing feedback? This is an important question to ask yourself. If your goal is to provide it to better an individual, realign them around organizational goals, and/or establish a different direction on project management for example then share those benefits. Otherwise, recipients will be left to their own devices (i.e., imagination) which may not produce intended outcomes.

Criticism Tip #3 – Prepare to Listen

There are three sides to every story… Our side, their side, and the truth. Insuring that you know all three sides helps in creating constructive criticism moments. The key of course is for you to listen to the other sides story. While you may have all the facts, some of the facts presented may not be ones of a high importance to you.

Criticism Tip #2 –Thank You!

I’ve heard it said that feedback, whether it’s in the form of constructive criticism or a customer survey, is a gift. Whether you agree or not, take it for what it is and remind yourself and others that the proper response is to say “Thank You!” Leave your defensiveness/rebuttal/excuses at the door.

Criticism Tip #1 – Follow Up

Once you provide or receive constructive criticism, it’s important to set a date/time to follow up to insure that what was discussed is (1) understood, (2) put into action, and (3) proper direction is once again established. I see in executive coaching sessions way too often a leaders inability to following up which causes tremendous heart ache for all parities. Know that saying thing one time and expecting everything to change as a result forever more is never a good leadership moments (It’s just not realistic, right?)


In this post we’ve taken a look at the leadership challenge of criticism as well as 5 tips to help you either provide/receive constructive criticism. Let’s face it, these can be crucial conversations consisting of pain for both parties. However, the crucial conversation part comes from the fact that it is crucial to have them in order to progress forward.


Sam Palazzolo

The Leadership Challenge- Criticism – 5 Tips!

About Sam Palazzolo, Managing Director

Sam Palazzolo is Managing Director at Tip of the Spear Ventures, an agile Venture Capital and Business Advisory Services firm specializing in Mergers & Acquisition, Sales / Business Development & Turnaround Management.