We live in a strange new world. Not a particularly kind and generous one if you ask me.
Our world is polarized as never before and civility in dealing with those with whom you disagree seems to have been erased from our society’s hard drive.
And I am so not talking only about politics. I see it with nonprofit organizations galore.
The negativity comes from both inside the organization (a staff upset with a change in health benefits) and externally (community members who feel voiceless in some kind of directional change.)
Or a local blogger or journalist with a big ol’ bone to pick. My phones have been ringing more and more asking for help with these kinds of issues. Some might frame this as crisis management but I would prefer to dig at the root cause.
Often, a full-blown crisis is the result of something small handled poorly.
Or something small that leaders got so worried about that it became big. I believe nonprofit leaders can often cut crises off at the pass if we handle the challenge or the criticism well.
Today, I want to help you think about how to handle criticism without anger or defensiveness so that it doesn’t blow up into a full-blown crisis. If I do only that, it will be a good day at the office for me.
A CRITICISM BECOMES A CRISIS
Example 1: E.D. Head on a Stick
Here’s the scenario.
A new E.D., Sara, is hired following the tenure of someone who was seen as a terrific leader and manager. Sara arrives to find “dust bunnies on top of dust bunnies”. Some are related to admin policies, lack of staff accountability, maybe even financial challenges.
The need for change is so obvious to the board and Sara and off they go. The more change the merrier, the faster, the better so we can do what needs to be done to remove obstacles that stand in the way of the mission.
But change takes time and you start to hear some rumblings of criticism.
Change agents see the changes as so obvious. But not the staff. The critics get louder.
Some of the criticism is legit; some is because they don’t see the issues as closely as the leadership.
Staff of larger organizations take a major step and unionize. They send a formal vote of no-confidence in the E.D. to the board. The power balance goes terribly out of whack. It shifts to staff, board capitulates to the union / organized staff.
Sara is forced to resign.
If you recognize this scenario, the likelihood is that it is not an organization you know or support. Because I have in the last 6 months, heard this story about three very different organizations.
In fact, I am seeing this with greater and greater frequency. Executive recruiters talk with me about it endlessly.
Example 2: The Squeaky Wheel
In this second scenario we have a community center with insufficient clarity about who can book rooms for meetings.
A pro-Israeli group books space. Then, a week later, a pro-Palestinian group books space.
A good majority of the clients served at the center are Jewish. The community begins criticizing the center, asking the E.D. to withdraw the booking for the pro-Palestinian group.
These two rather small groups become very loud and consume the time and energy of the E.D., senior staff, and the board. Suggestions are made to bring the two groups together (and we all know how successful that has been for decades).
The board’s primary motivation is fear of negative press; the E.D. simply wants everyone to be happy.
Neither the board nor staff wants to say yes to one and no to the other. Meanwhile the organization is consumed by the concerns of about 55 people when 5,000 people are served weekly by this center.
These two examples offer a glimpse into what can happen when criticism gets out of hand.
So here are a few things to remember and a bit of practical advice you may find helpful.
And by the way, if this has not happened to your organization, among your staff or in your community, you may be very good. But it is equally likely that it just hasn’t happened yet.
5 WAYS TO HANDLE CRITICISM AND AVOID CRISIS
1. Preempt it. Is there a decision you are going to make that may be met with community, board, or staff criticism? Meet ahead of time with key influencers. Sell in the benefit or the importance of the decision. You hear the positive nature of that statement? No defensiveness.
Don’t lead with, “Look, I know you are not going to like this but….”
Here’s an example on a small scale: I was in love with a new logo we had designed. But it was abstract and open to interpretation. Frankly, that’s why I loved it and also why I knew some board members would hate it.
As the E.D., the decision was mine. But the board’s criticism would be singularly unhelpful as we took on re-branding.
So I went to the board members I was sure would hate it and the ones whose voices would carry the most weight. In my presentation about what we loved about the logo and why it was powerful, I included quotes from those folks. Some of them were actually pretty funny.
But I was able to position the logo exactly the way I wanted it to be understood. Open to lots of interesting and powerful interpretations. I even asked my ten year old and included her quote.
The presentation was a hit. The logo was embraced.
2. Honor the voices of dissent. This can be very hard for folks who are defensive or have big egos, but you have got to go there. It’s best if you can get to those folks ahead of time, before you decide, so that you can honestly say you heard from them some of the potential downside.
3. Paint a vision. In the first example above, the criticism came because of some kind of change. People really don’t like change (most of the time… a clear exception here would be a salary increase) and will find reasons to criticize it.
In my mind, the biggest obstacle to successful change management is that there is no vision attached to the change. “As a result of this new thing, our organization will, in two years, be able to X.” Get folks excited about what the change represents and the decision goes down a lot easier. It is the best way to turn critics into champions.
4. Communicate twice as much as you want to. And in person. Early on in my tenure, I made a significant decision in the organization – one that would seriously diminish the power and authority of a group of volunteers.
For many important reasons, I felt it was critical that the staff own the decision. But I had already made up my mind so this was not a situation where I could ask for legitimate input. Doing that can make matters worse, by the way.
I had to tell the volunteers, some of who had been part of the organization for a decade. Most of them were in LA and I was in NY. My gut said I had to go and meet with them in person.
I did. None of them could remember the last time the E.D. had met with them. I had learned their names and was able to talk about something they had contributed. When I talked about the new decision making, they were unhappy but my decision was clear and I had a very clear rationale and it was also clear they were being told and not asked for their advice.
Some of those volunteers said that was when they knew they had a really good leader. And I was taking power and authority away from them!
Please remember: a gap in information is ALWAYS filled. If you have a group that is concerned about something and feels voiceless, they will fill it.
And not the way you want them to.
5. Just apologize. Sometimes criticism is real and justified. I’m not sure why it is so damned hard for folks to offer a simple, no-strings-attached apology. But sometimes it is the single best way to acknowledge the voice of the critic and ensure that the criticism does not escalate.
ONE BONUS PIECE OF ADVICE
Get outside of the echo chamber. In the heat of criticism, ten client or community voices can feel like three hundred.
I’m not saying those ten people matter less because there are only ten. But I am saying that if you serve 5,000 folks a week, you need to remember that they are also your clients or members of your community.
What I really mean is that there is no better antidote to help you contend with criticism then to touch the work.
How do you handle criticism? What advice can you offer your fellow nonprofit leaders? Let us know in the comments below.