Criticism can be difficult to receive.
This is especially true when the object of the criticism is something we have poured our hearts and souls into, like the communities we lead. (And if you’re not pouring your heart and soul into your community, then why are you leading it in the first place?)
It can hurt to read criticism from a member. It can cause us to feel angry. It can feel unfair.
All of those feelings are valid. They’re also unavoidable.
Heck, I still feel twinges of these feelings myself from time to time — despite working really hard to internalize the lesson I’m sharing with you in this post.
But here’s what you learn the more time you spend leading communities: those feelings, real as they may be, simply don’t matter.
It’s what you do with those feelings, and, more importantly, what you do with the opportunity to respond to criticism, that really matters.
Because all thriving, authentic communities will invite their share of criticism. This is why, if you’re not getting any criticism, you should question just how thriving and/or authentic your community really is.
Indifference is the enemy of authentic engagement
It’s actually quite easy to avoid criticism.
All you have to do is create something that no one cares about. Then you’ll be protected from harsh feedback because no one will care enough to provide any feedback at all.
This is, quite obviously, not what you want.
Whenever I think about this topic, I’m reminded of what you often hear athletes say who have played for an intense coach.
You’d think the goal for these athletes would be to avoid getting yelled and screamed at, right? On the surface, yes. But something deeper often ends up happening.
These athletes sometimes find that they don’t actually want the yelling and screaming (at least the constructive yelling and screaming) to stop because of what it suggests: that the coach doesn’t care anymore.
If the coach is yelling and screaming at you, it means the coach is interested in you; it means that he or she is invested in your development.
And so it goes with community members.
If a member takes the time to share a constructive piece of criticism with you, that member is interested in what you’re doing and invested in making it better. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t take the time.
The other reason why a member might not share negative feedback is that they don’t feel comfortable enough to voice their authentic opinion. This would be an indictment of the tone you’re setting from the top.
The problem is either indifference or an inauthentic connection, both of which can severely hinder your efforts to build a thriving community.
Always remember: good communities get criticized; bad communities get ignored.
One caveat: there are some types of criticism you want to avoid
Just because getting some criticism is a good sign, that doesn’t mean all types of criticism are okay.
As a general rule, you want most of the criticism you receive to borne out of some frustration people have at wanting to engage more with a community they are excited about.
For example, in the Unemployable Initiative I host regular virtual happy hours. The typical time for these is 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Fridays. This is the most convenient time for me personally, and it generally fits in with the American custom of a Friday hour hour at the end of a workweek. But this timing doesn’t do much for our international members, of which we have many.
After a few of these events, I received some light criticism from people who could not attend. Good! These were people who wanted to be able to attend the events and connect with other members, but who felt ignored because of a start time that didn’t accommodate them. I responded by adding a new regular time of Thursdays at 11 ET, which allowed for many more members to attend.
I’ve also fielded some criticism in the Unemployable Initiative about the amount of emails and notifications making it difficult to keep up (I responded by adding a regular roundup of events and conversations), and a couple of our Group discussions drying up after a few weeks. In each case, these were people who cared about engaging more and were critical of impediments to that engagement.
I’ll field criticism like that all day. It helps me make the community better.
Here’s the kind of criticism I never want to get though:
- “It doesn’t seem like the leaders are interested in what’s going on.”
- “I don’t know where to go when I have an issue.”
- “The tone of conversation here is toxic.”
Criticism like this is a direct indictment of the leadership of the community. By the time the question gets asked, the damage might already be done (at least for that member).
So while the absence of any criticism is a bad sign for your community, the presence of the wrong kind of criticism is a similarly bad sign.
How to accept criticism with the gratitude it deserves
The antidote to feeling counter-productive emotions after receiving criticism from a community member is to switch as quickly as possible into gratitude mode.
Train yourself to do one thing, without fail, any time you receive constructive criticism from a member: say thank you.
All this takes is considering the effort required and the potential discomfort or fear that had to be overcome for this member to express their criticism. Even if the criticism ends up not being something you decide to act on, you can appreciate its delivery.
And that last point is important to remember: just because a member criticizes something about your community doesn’t mean you have to change it. Your only obligation is to consider it.
There may be a feature of your community that is inconvenient for a particular member but that you know is convenient for the majority of members. If customizing the feature for individual members isn’t possible, and you’ve exhausted all other remedies, then your best choice is to change nothing and keep doing what you’re doing.
But the member who brought the criticism to you should never suffer the indignity of their request going unheeded and unappreciated. The former isn’t a given, but the latter always should be.
If you’ve worked hard to build a community that delivers significant value to members you understand deeply, you will undoubtedly feel great pride in what you’ve created. There is nothing inherently wrong with this feeling, unless it leads you to bristle at well-intentioned criticism from members who care.
The best way to handle criticism from members is with humility and gratitude. Listen to the member, recognize the opportunity to learn valuable specifics about how one of your members is experiencing your community, and appreciate their effort to help you improve this space you both share.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
You can’t have an authentic community without criticism
Reading this post from Rich at FeverBee inspired this issue of Primility. You’ll recognize this sentiment: “Good community leaders are great at putting their gut emotional reaction aside and building these bridges of understanding. They know how valuable this criticism is.”
Responding to Criticism From Members | FeverBee
Don’t ever ignore criticism
While you can (and should) ignore certain types of criticism that might get hurled your way on social media, you should never ignore criticism inside of a community you run. It’s your job to asses it and use your judgment about how to respond — but you have to respond. This post provides a few pointers to help with the how.
Criticism can make you stronger
This short, punchy post provides a few useful tips for how to put criticism into the proper perspective. If you’re successful at doing so, the criticism can give you a competitive advantage.
Six reasons why criticism is a good thing | The Guardian
Prepare yourself to deal with diverse communication styles
Remember that while your online community should attract people who share similar values, not everyone communicates the same way online. Some people can be terse, or impersonal, or self-interested. You need to be prepared to deal with all different types.
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
Please consider forwarding it to a friend who wants to be a better servant leader and build a strong online community.
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash