Facing criticism: The new essential skill for managers?

In 2024, managerial roles encompass far more than just team management. They now carry significant responsibilities and high expectations, often attracting sharp criticism. Is the ability to handle these pressures and confront them becoming a crucial skill for increasingly complex managerial roles?

The role of a manager undoubtedly holds a central place in organizations. However, the leadership position isn’t without challenges. Managers often find themselves under fire, subject to multiple and sometimes conflicting pressures. Luc Bretones, an expert in new governance, notes that in recent years, the manager’s responsibilities have expanded: “Their areas of intervention have diversified and become more complex, including supervising various aspects such as team functioning, workplace well-being, environmental initiatives, innovation, and HR issues. Moreover, they are also accountable to their hierarchy. Whatever the circumstances, the responsibility falls on them!” This intense workload results in high burnout and absenteeism rates: nearly 53% of managers had to take sick leave in 2023.

This reality is confirmed by Alexis Eve, a management coach and occupational psychologist: “Regardless of their hierarchical level, managers are seen as the guardians of their team’s success, responsible for sustainably improving performance. Their role is twofold: they must cultivate harmonious interpersonal relationships and guarantee tangible results. Moreover, their position exposes them further: every word and action is closely watched. The smallest misstep is quickly amplified.” Their ability to accept feedback of various kinds thus becomes an inherent aptitude in their position. Based on his own experience, Jérémy Trenteseaux, mid-market director at CoachHub, corroborates: “I became a team manager after being an individual contributor. At first, I received a lot of criticism from my former peers. It’s normal because you’re ‘crossing to the other side,’ implying, ‘You’re defending the management now.’ It’s very typical, but you feel great solitude and a lot of misunderstanding.” How can managers strengthen their ability to handle criticism? What rituals can be implemented to channel these reproaches and turn them into tools for managerial improvement?

Handling criticism: The new essential skill for managers?

The word “criticism” comes from the Greek “to discern,” meaning the art of recognizing the value of people or things. It involves defining the limits of a thought or action to show its contradictions and make progress. So why is it so difficult to accept criticism? “There is a fundamental semantic distinction: criticism is often used to express an annoying point, which is quite selfish on the part of the critic. Feedback, on the other hand, is constructive since it aims to help others progress, when well-conducted,” Alexis Eve emphasizes. Another dimension to consider is the nature of the manager-managed relationship: “Management isn’t a continuation of private social life. Since the notion of hierarchy comes into play, interactions can’t be the same. Moreover, there’s a form of implicit interpersonal asymmetry: managers are always expected to do more in creating and maintaining a harmonious work dynamic.”

In light of this, it’s crucial to master some techniques to adopt the right attitude. “I call them managerial choreographies, which aim to maintain emotional distance and depersonalize interactions. For instance, to discipline an employee, we’ll use Nonviolent Communication (NVC), or to channel criticism, we’ll rely on Radical Candor. This strengthens the individual capacity to handle criticism,” Alexis Eve continues. Reflecting on this attitude, Luc Bretones recalls his own experience as a manager: “When I managed a team of 350 people in a telecom after-sales service, criticism towards me and my teams was common. My view was this: where there’s criticism, there’s love. People just want to be heard.” The goal for a manager is to adopt an almost stoic approach or philosophy: not to take personally criticism that isn’t one’s fault, trying to see opportunities for progress in them. A noble pursuit in theory. But how can this be achieved in daily professional interactions?

Criticism: 3 ways to turn it into a catalyst for managerial performance

Path #1: The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix, according to Luc Bretones, is an essential tool to help managers filter criticism effectively: “It allows them to sift through and distance what is neither important nor urgent, or on the contrary, prioritize the urgent.” This method, developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, is a time and priority management system that allows tasks and problems to be classified based on their urgency and importance.

So, to receive and handle criticism effectively, a manager can quickly evaluate the relevance and urgency of each critique:

  • Those that are important and urgent: require immediate attention and should be prioritized.
  • Those that are important but not urgent: can be scheduled to be addressed at a more opportune time.
  • Those that are neither important nor urgent: can be set aside or delegated.

“Thus, managers have a way to rationalize their decision-making process and ensure they focus their efforts on the most important aspects of their work,” our expert continues.

Path #2: Stephen Covey's Circles of Influence

“Another difficulty for a manager is filtering criticism to identify whether it falls under their control, the organization, or socio-economic circumstances. For this, they can use Covey’s Circle, which allows them to focus on topics they can influence,” explains Luc Bretones. This model, popularized by American author Stephen Covey in the 1980s, is based on two concentric circles: the circle of influence and the circle of concern.

In the context of handling criticism:

  • The circle of influence represents what the manager has direct control over: this includes their own response to criticism, actions to address raised issues, and the ability to bring about tangible changes. By focusing on what they can influence, managers can take a proactive approach to addressing criticism and implementing solutions.
  • The circle of concern includes aspects over which the person has no direct control, such as others’ opinions or external circumstances. “Managers should focus on their circle of influence rather than exhaust themselves worrying about topics they can’t act on directly,” he continues.

This systemic approach helps managers stay focused, efficient, and resilient in the face of criticism and challenges in their role.

Path #3: The Culture of Feedback

From a more organizational and cultural perspective, implementing feedback remains an essential catalyst to turn criticism into constructive feedback. “Receiving feedback can often be a difficult experience, but it’s a crucial step for any manager looking to improve. To develop this skill, there’s no secret: you have to ‘eat miles of feedback,'” says Alexis Eve. During individual follow-up sessions, the manager can dedicate time to exchange with their employee to ask about their managerial actions: what should they continue? What should they do differently to be a better leader? “This opens the door to suggestions for improvement and immediately shifts criticism to a more constructive and productive exchange.”

It’s also important to educate teams on the feedback methodology and encourage them to express their opinions constructively. “To establish a lasting feedback culture, it’s helpful to start with one-on-one sessions, then small groups before expanding to the entire team through collective retrospectives, for example. This creates a more secure environment where members feel comfortable,” concludes our expert.

Besides this trilogy of individual and collective tools, the two Lab experts emphasized a key point: relational support for managers. Whether through coaching, co-development, mentoring, or listening to a third party, the goal is to promote emotional distance to maintain the necessary acceptance of criticism, as Confucius exhorts us: “When we refuse criticism, we refuse advice.”

Via Welcome To The Jungle