How Leaders Should Handle Public Criticism
A few years ago, a client of mine, Dennis,* the CEO of a financial services institution, walked into his executive team meeting and declared, “Anyone else have any darts they want to throw? I seem to be the dartboard of the week.”
The week prior, a lower-level executive in Dennis’s company had been fired for an ethics violation, giving the company’s otherwise upstanding reputation a black eye. Shocked and outraged by what had happened, employees took aim at the top in a spate of social media, email, and internal platform condemnations of Dennis for “letting it happen” or “turning a blind eye.” (Neither of which were true.)
Dennis would hardly be alone in his experience of public scorn from employees. The last few years have wrought a wave of employee activism and public critiques of leaders. Elon Musk’s recent experiences at Twitter may be an extreme case, but the swift public scolding from employees and the world indicates that when it comes to expressing our sharp disapproval, leaders are fair game.
I recently caught up with Dennis, now retired, and asked him about that experience of harsh public reproach, and whether, in hindsight, there was anything he would have done differently. If you’re a leader who’s facing down the strident criticism of those you lead — and even if you’re not, you’d be wise to assume your turn may be around the corner — here are some ways to steel yourself and respond well.
Accept that it’s part of the job.
When you rise to levels of leadership, consider that your actions now play out on the jumbotron for all to see and evaluate. The higher you rise, the broader that visibility.
Sometimes you’ll get things wrong. Given the thousands of decisions you likely make each week, you will inevitably disappoint or enrage someone.
Keep your eye on your longer-term track record of choices, ideally racking up more positive outcomes than negative. Don’t let yourself get stuck on any one choice or the public response to it. If you do, you risk losing confidence and letting excessive caution and ridicule-aversion drive your subsequent decisions, compounding the problem.
Don’t use fairness as a gauge to respond.
Dennis told me, “If you’re looking for things to be fair, you’re in the wrong job.” The cruel reality of leadership is that when things go wrong, you take a disproportionate amount of the blame.
When you make mistakes, the scrutiny from the broader organization is intensified. Remember, the farther people are from the problem, the less context and understanding they have. They will fill in the blanks with conjecture, projection of their own trauma, and perceived motives for why you did what you did.
Avoid getting sidetracked by all the noise, however much it stings. Stay focused on solving the problem, responding to anyone who’s been harmed, and learning from what happened.
Set the record straight with facts, not emotion.
You will naturally feel defensive when attacked, especially if it feels unjust, exaggerated, or inaccurate. But your defensiveness will only fuel people’s derision. If there’s inaccurate information feeding the frenzied reactions, do what you can to replace it with facts. Be careful to convey those facts as information you believe people need, not as a refutation of people’s unfair accusations. Dennis reflected:
I could have done a much better job not letting how offended I felt leak into how I communicated. In hindsight, I realized that it didn’t matter if others thought I condoned or ignored what happened. What mattered is that people cared so much about the culture they’d come to love that they were outraged it could have been so badly violated. They were just looking to make sense of something inexplicable. They couldn’t see that I was just as outraged and indignant as they were. And instead of showing them, I defended myself. That just made it worse.
Humility and transparency are your friends.
When we feel accused or condemned, even wrongfully, shame can be a reflexive reaction. We want to hide and protect ourselves. While understandable, that instinct can make things worse.
It might feel counterintuitive, but more transparency will work in your favor. Whether caused by your actions or not, even unintentionally, the result is that people you lead are now frustrated, hurt, angry, and confused. Your job isn’t to determine whether those feelings are legitimate or not — your job is to demonstrate empathy for them, regardless of whether you think they’re warranted. Doing anything that conveys dismissiveness risks making people feel like you’re gaslighting them.
Many leaders fear that a humble posture conveys guilt and remorse, inadvertently signaling “you did it” even if that’s not true. But it actually shows care. Hiding and avoidance scream “guilt.” Separate wanting to clarify or reduce your degree of culpability from caring for those you lead.
Filter conflicting advice through your values.
You may well have a host of advisors suddenly appearing at your door with countless ideas on how to respond. Dennis told me:
People on my team wanted to defend me. My communications team brought in a crisis-management consultant who wanted me to ‘be confident, but accessible.’ My legal and risk-management team were calculating our company’s reputational risk, urging me to say as little as possible. HR wanted me to hold a town hall to let people air their feelings. At the end of the day, I forgot my own values.
It’s always helpful to have people with specific expertise inform your choices. But when all is said and done, you need to stand up in front of the world and represent your message authentically and honestly.
Whatever posture and words you choose will create a permanent record of your character during crisis. You have to be true to the values you want people to remember you by. If you don’t want this moment to define you, then make sure it reveals who you intend to be.
Resist becoming cold and hardened.
The emotional fatigue of public denigration will take its toll. Be sure you’re also drawing on mental health experts to care for yourself during the ordeal. If you don’t have ways to manage your emotional well-being, it will have a negative effect on your relationships and your outlook. As a way to self-protect, you may withdraw and become hardened toward others.
Dennis expressed his regrets, telling me:
I remember making that dart board comment. I wished I hadn’t. By then I had become callous and cavalier about it all, but that’s not really me. My wife felt pushed away when she tried to be supportive. My executive coach [Ron] tried to point out ways I was changing, but I couldn’t hear it. Nothing really prepares you for moments like that, but in hindsight, I would have taken care of my whole emotional response very differently.
Look for the kernels of truth.
At some point, you will have to ask yourself what you need to learn from this experience. Almost always, amidst harsh public scrutiny, there are kernels of truth from which you can glean wisdom.
Dennis’s company had prided itself on having built an unassailable culture of integrity and service. As a result, Dennis had become a bit complacent with his focus on ethics and compliance, setting a strong tone from the top and making the company’s expectations of leaders as role models crystal clear. But the company had grown very fast, and he just took for granted that the culture would grow at the same rate. But it actually became diluted, setting the stage for the challenge they faced.
Within the carnage of whatever scrutiny you’re facing, step back and objectively ask yourself what lessons you can take from the experience. Do you need to lead differently? Have you made unfounded assumptions? Have you taken things for granted? Look close enough, and you’ll find important insights.
Take action and report back.
When the initial scorch of the criticism subsides, you’ll be tempted to assume things have blown over, and the next news cycle will divert attention from you. But this is a foolish mistake. You will have inevitably made commitments about what you will do, what you will change, and how you will avoid repeating the problem. You need to assume people will remember and want to know what progress you’re making.
It’s here where Dennis shined. He doubled down on the company’s commitment to transmitting its core values, ensuring the culture reached every corner of the company. He reported to employees, shareholders, and the media every three months on progress they were making, including where they were falling short. A year later, the company had an even stronger reputation, and Dennis had regained his standing as a well-regarded leader.
. . .
Bearing the brunt of widespread public criticism is one of every leader’s worst nightmares. And it appears as though the harshness is only intensifying as employees broadcast their anger and intolerance of behavior they deem wrong. “This is definitely the stuff they don’t teach you in business school, or anywhere,” Dennis quipped.”But anyone who wants to lead needs to prepare well in advance for the moment they face their inquisition. You can get through it, even come out on top, but you need to be ready.”
Do yourself — and your organization — a favor and prepare yourself for the moment when the fingers of accusation point your way. Define and sharpen the values you want to guide you through. Rehearse the messages you hope to convey. Study other leaders who’ve navigated such crises well and poorly to learn from their experiences. And perhaps, with your eyes tuned well to the cost of such experiences, you may get to avoid it.
* Name has been changed to protect privacy.