My View

The Difficult Embrace of Constructive Criticism
BY JARED R. SMITH/School Administrator, December 2020

I STRUGGLE to accept constructive criticism. No matter how hard I try, the moment I receive suggestions for improvement I get defensive.

Two summers ago, I asked our school district’s leadership team for feedback on an extensive project. Although I encouraged their comments, I didn’t think anyone would respond so I was surprised when two instructional coaches accepted my offer.

When we met, the employees provided several suggestions for improvement. On the outside, I nodded my head and smiled. But on the inside, I told myself, “Do they realize how much time I put into this project? If you think you can do better ... go ahead!”
As we finished I (reluctantly) told the coaches I appreciated their feedback. When they left, my feelings were hurt. Despite my efforts, they essentially indicated the entire document needed revision.

I felt like a failure.

Ready to Re-engage
This experience reminded me of a quotation from Ray Dalio’s book Principles: Life and Work: “Accurate criticism is the most valuable feedback you can receive.”

It took a week until I was mentally prepared to re-engage with the project. When I did, I realized the criticism was warranted. The two employees were district veterans, and they understood what would resonate with our stakeholders. I followed their advice and recreated the document.

It took some time, but the finished product was outstanding. Later I sent a follow-up email to both employees to thank them for their courage in sharing their ideas. I told them this served as a great learning experience, admitting that a high-quality project was more important than a bruised ego.

Personal Pain

Earlier this year, education leaders were tasked with developing plans for returning to school during the COVID pandemic. Those decisions were not easy and were heavily criticized in many communities.

Prior to the start of the school year, I met with a group of parents who did not agree with our school district’s plan to begin with remote teaching and learning. Based on the intelligence I had received from others, the parents were livid and out for superintendent blood.

When the meeting began, the parents immediately criticized a number of our decisions. One by one, each parent listed her or his complaints.

Although the comments were general in nature, I couldn’t help but take the feedback personally. I badly wanted to blurt, “OK, you don’t think I’m good at my job? What if I showed up at your work and started criticizing you?”

However, as the meeting continued, hostility gave way to healthy dialogue. The parents did an admirable job describing how the plan impacted their families and provided several feasible solutions. By the time our conversation ended, we understood each other’s perspectives and even shared a few laughs.

Later that evening, I received the following message from one of the more “outspoken” parents: “Thank you so much for sitting down today and listening to some concerns! I’m definitely feeling better about some things. We are lucky to have you here!”

A Humble Nature

Fighting the urge to reject criticism is difficult.

In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott suggests: “When you receive criticism whatever you do, don’t start criticizing the criticism. You’ll feel a strong urge to act defensively or at least explain yourself. This is natural, but it pretty much will kill any chance you’ll get criticism from that person again.”

Prideful leaders who shut down criticism will discover others no longer share feedback.

Humble leaders who embrace criticism will discover others can provide great advice.

As much as it hurts, accurate criticism is often the best feedback.

JARED SMITH is superintendent of South Tama County Community Schools in Tama, Iowa. Twitter: @JaredSmithPhD. This column is adapted from his blog, Thoughts on Leadership, Education and Personal Growth.