In my late 20s, I worked for a large philanthropic foundation where I got to know dozens of CEOs and presidents of large nonprofit organizations. I watched how they worked and saw how they behaved with one another.
Several months into this job, I was struck by something: The most successful leaders in the region, those who had grown their organizations’ impact and budgets significantly during their tenures, were all very controversial. They each had staunch supporters, but they also had fierce critics.
This puzzled my 20-something self. It hinted at the very opposite of what I’d been taught in my girlhood and adolescent years in school: That if you do great work, it will be liked, be praised, be warmly received. Watching these controversial but effective leaders—mostly women—I saw a very different truth: In our professional lives, good work is almost never met exclusively with praise. It’s far more likely to be met with a polarized reaction—some fans, some critics.
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Watching these women leaders early in my career, I was made aware of another assumption I held: That if influential, smart people have negative feedback on your approach or style, you should pay attention and change yourself, incorporating their feedback. These leaders operated in a different way: They cultivated relationships with the influential and smart people who loved their existing approach and style and didn’t feel obligated to make changes based on everyone’s feedback. They expected to have some people in their camp and others very much not in their camp, and they realized they could be stunningly successful despite having vocal critics.
When we really take this in, as women, it changes everything. It means we don’t need to win everyone over. It means that the time we spend worrying about negative feedback would often be better used identifying allies and like-minded colleagues and cultivating relationships with them.
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Years later, when I shifted careers and began coaching women around their career and life challenges, I noticed many of my clients were hitting professional and personal walls because of their relationship to praise and criticism. They were so dependent on praise or so avoidant of criticism that they couldn’t do more innovative work that would likely not be understood or embraced by everyone. They couldn’t make tough, controversial decisions in their organization and deal with some people really not liking those decisions. As a tried and true people-pleaser, I could relate to these struggles.
It quickly became clear to me that, for most women, there is a rite of passage that has to do with doing just what I’d seen those powerful women nonprofit leaders do: Get very comfortable with ongoing criticism and pushback. This is a personal rite of passage, to be sure, but it is also a collective one for women of our time. This is the first time in history when women—not all women, but many—can be safe and as they challenge the status quo and do what may not be approved of.
So how do we do this work of getting more comfortable with criticism? I don’t like the term “getting a thick skin” because it implies a kind of barrier between oneself and the world, and from my work with women, I’ve seen that the needed change doesn’t have to do with creating a shield or callousness. It comes from changing what we make criticism and praise mean.
The old story might be that criticism means there’s something wrong with you. The new story is that powerful leaders and thinkers draw criticism, and there’s often nothing they need to do or change in response to it. The old story is that your work, your performance, your creations are either “good” or “bad,” by some objective standard (the school model). The new story is that different bosses, clients and audiences like very different things. The new story is that feedback tells us more about the preferences and expectations of the person giving it than it tells us about ourselves. We might incorporate feedback, but we do it knowing we’re adapting ourselves for strategic reasons so that we can better work with or reach a particular individual—not because we think we need fixing.
Here are some of my best tips for rewriting that narrative about praise and criticism:
1. When you receive tough feedback, ask yourself, “If I were to look at this feedback not as telling me something about myself, but rather, as telling me something about the person giving the feedback, what might it tell me about them? How can that new information about this individual or individuals help me be more effective in my work?”
2. When you receive positive feedback, ask yourself the same question: “What does this feedback tell me, not about myself, but about the preferences, expectations or needs of the person giving the feedback? How can that new information about this individual or individuals help me be more effective in my work?”
3. Identify an “unhooked from praise and criticism role model”—a woman you admire who isn’t driven by praise-seeking or criticism-avoidance in her work. When you need to, simply ask yourself, “How would she handle this situation?”
Tara Mohr is the creator of the Playing Big leadership program for women and author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead.