Living with Criticism

Living with Criticism

If you seek credit and praise, love and appreciation, leadership is not for you.

"I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW OFTEN MY WORDS ARE MISINTERPRETED," said a former student, recently appointed dean. So I gave him my Administration 101 lecture about the Eureka! moment that comes to every first-time administrator when he realizes his relationship with friends and colleagues is altered, and they suddenly identify him with the position and authority he holds. The new dean found this difficult to accept, and assured me he would never lose his "faculty stripes." He hadn't yet hit his Eureka! moment.

But my young friend will quickly develop a coterie of detractors who are critical of his decision-making and the words and methods used to convey his decisions. People will repeat and discuss what he says with reinterpretation fallout. In time, his detractor list will grow. Whatever it was that endeared him to his colleagues and helped him win their approval as a leader will be quickly forgotten. And oh, how it will hurt!

In fact, tomes have been written about the interstices of power relationships. But they all boil down to that something in the human psyche that resents any assignment of authority over us- whether by way of election, appointment, birth, or force. Think about it: How much conversation about administrative leaders is praise, and how much is criticism? George Washington labeled criticism "the unfailing lot of an elevated station."

The reason this happens so often, British sociologist Herbert Spencer reminds us, is that we view people in authority as though they have "the same desires, hopes, fears, and restraints as ourselves." Yet, on campus, there can be a world of difference in the perception of what matters to a department program versus the university as a whole. And there appears to be a short step between disagreement and demonization; it's just easier to attack a decisionmaker than to rationalize a decision. At the very least, motive or method will be attacked.

Criticism is the unfailing lot
of an elevated station.

Unfortunately, many administrators exhaust themselves trying to please critics. Many feel a desperate need to be understood (loved?) and spend more time trying to assuage critics than lead supporters. Here are six suggestions to help you live with criticism:

Base your decisions on some workable operating principle so that it is rooted and easy to restate. Such principles may vary from the profound (academic freedom) to the mundane (personnel policies). Either way, when disagreement is voiced, you can honestly say, "I consider this an issue of [this or that] principle and regret that you do not see it the same way."

Don't get caught in the "we were never consulted" trap that accompanies almost every campus dispute. Barring the rare unforeseen emergency, consult! Consult formally with appropriate leaders or bodies, and informally as you walk the campus. In forming committees, choose a few known critics. If you fail to follow their advice, reduced criticism may not result, but outright failure to consult will dog you and intensify the criticism. If you have consulted, you can use the "regret you do not see it the same way" line. Remember, though: no one feels adequately consulted if the decision doesn't go his way. Remember, too: only you will be held responsible for a bad decision-no matter who recommended it.

In public meetings, do not treat an inquiry as criticism, even when it is so intended. Too few people seem to be able to handle a question-and-answer session without appearing annoyed and threatened. Rephrase a hostile query ("I presume you are referring to...") and then answer it as though you are addressing it for the first time. This takes practice, but it is superior to using your position to demean or insult via a hostile retort. When faced with an understandably upset group (e.g., a department losing a program), don't compensate with exaggerated statements of empathy. Even if you "feel their pain," do not say it; it will be resented and mocked. Just say that you understand their concerns and took them into consideration when making your decision.

Heed "consider the source." There actually may be people out to get you. There are also the chronically dissatisfied and those who enjoy keeping leaders on the defensive. In the meantime, you will concentrate on the substance of the issues. Criticism from those whom you respect, and whose motivations are not suspect, merits both attention and response. Make clear to your close associates that speaking truth to those in power is acceptable and appreciated. Listen carefully for signals that you are perceived to be unapproachable, impatient, or guilty of favoritism. Recognize valuable constructive criticism, publicly if possible, privately at any time, preferably in writing. Harry Truman's perception of responsibility (if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen) applies to anyone who must make important decisions. I have known several administrators who could never weather the heat; they were unhappy to the point of physical illness and mental depression. If you seek credit and praise, love and appreciation, leadership is not for you. But if you realize that criticism is not personal but human, you will enjoy the pleasures of administrative responsibility.

Milton Greenberg has served as AU's provost and interim president.


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