Healthy Leaders


Before We Criticize Our Leaders

Adrian PeiAdrian Pei

I can still recall walking out of the leadership meeting, feeling deflated and invisible.  They just don’t get me, and what I’m trying to do, I thought to myself.  I felt frustrated, indignant, and angry.

And then I did the exact same thing to a group of younger leaders.  I neglected to value and honor their voice and contribution, and saw the negative impact it had on them.

As leaders, we will all fail and disappoint others at times.  And we will feel let down by those we respect.  So how do we handle that?  Here are couple of things I’m learning to do:

  1. Express my needs before I criticize.

When we feel we’ve been wronged, it often means we have a genuine need that’s been unaddressed.  For instance, we need respect or to be valued for the project we’ve worked so hard on.  Before I criticize, I’m trying to ask myself, “Have I asked for what I need from my leaders, and given them a chance to respond to that?”

I once heard an interview with journalist Diane Sawyer where she mentioned some wisdom she had been given: “Criticism is just a bad way to make a request.” 

There’s a kernel of truth in there … it’s understandable to vent when we’ve been wronged, but it’s better leadership to circle back and gently tell our leaders, “It would mean a lot to our team if you could acknowledge our efforts in the past six months, because it hasn’t been easy.”  Many times, I’ve failed to go this extra step and that’s something I want to do better in the future.

  1. Be vulnerable and direct with my leaders.

Another thing I’m learning is that anger is a safer emotion than pain.  When we are wronged, it’s easier to retaliate or lash out because it makes us feel “bigger” and we don’t have to admit we’ve been hurt.  We put up our defenses and avoid talking directly about whatever is bothering us.

It’s much harder to express our pain in a vulnerable way to our leaders, such as saying, “I felt invisible and unimportant because I felt my idea was ‘shut down’ during that meeting.  Could we talk more about that?  I’d like to hear your thoughts and share some of mine.”

The same applies in our families: when we lash out at our spouse or child, there’s often a genuine need or desire we can express to them.  We want to spend more time with them … we want them to respect and value our contribution to the family … we want them to listen to us.  I want to have the courage to say these things vulnerably to my family, instead of staying silent and letting my frustration build.

Disappointment is a part of life and leadership.  It’s not a matter of whether or not we’ll experience it; it’s a matter of how we choose to respond when it happens.  So the next time you feel wronged or angry, take an extra minute and reflect on what you really need.  Then ask for it respectfully, directly, and vulnerably.  And let me know how it works for you.

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Adrian Pei