How CEOs Should Handle Criticism

CEOs are faced with a barrage of criticism these days, whether from inside the companies they lead or among the greater public.
ceo criticism

Corporate leaders have always been targets of criticism, both from inside and outside the firms they lead. But these days leaders are getting it from an increasing number of sources, thanks to a bevy of internet platforms designed to bring more transparency to work, as well as a social media ecosystem capable of spreading word rapidly.

“The opportunities for negative comments about CEOs to emerge are through the roof,” said Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB, a research and advisory firm based in Arlington, Virginia.

Just ask Oscar Munoz. The boss of United Airlines is the latest example of the perils of CEO critique. Not only did Munoz feel the heat when a video in April emerged on social media showing a United passenger being dragged off a flight by authorities after refusing to give up his seat to make room for United crew members needing to get to a job in another city, but his leaked internal response to his employees regarding the incident quickly drew ire from company review websites, social media and cable news.

While United’s incident is extreme, it shows just how important it is for leaders to be prepared to face such circumstances. Whether it’s a full-blown national scandal or an internal spat about direct reports, CEOs would be wise to develop the skills necessary to take criticism constructively.

First and foremost, CEOs need to take any criticism thrown their way head on, Kropp said. In most cases, leaders who try to ignore or deflect negative feedback are likely digging themselves a deeper hole, one that could potentially come with serious consequences for the companies they lead.

Therefore, when series criticism comes to the fore, the right senior executives need to be involved in handling the response. Regardless of which executive roles are involved when negative CEO feedback hits, the people need to have credibility among employees. Finally, given the speed at which these sorts of conversations occur, it’s necessary to have someone who can be timely to participate in the conversation. If needing to address these or other matters quickly, Kropp said leaders shouldn’t wait to set up a companywide meeting. Instead, go online to communicate with employees quickly. The most important element is to be honest and consistent. “You can’t celebrate false praise, and you can’t ignore real criticism,” he said.

If a CEO is hoping to handle responding to the critique themselves, it helps if that CEO is already visible and accessible to the firm’s front-line workers, said Todd Ordal, president of Applied Strategy, an executive coaching, strategic planning and organizational effectiveness firm based in Boulder, Colorado. “If they’re stuck in the C-suite behind mahogany row and really wouldn’t know a front-line co-worker if they ran into one, they’re going to have a hard time responding to this stuff and have to rely on others to do so,” he said.

Consistent Culture and Commenting

Ordal said CEOs should focus on responding to complaints that show the company isn’t living up to its desired culture. “If you allow behavior within your organization that conflicts with what your stated values are, you can get sideways, and you’ll destroy your culture very quickly,” he said.

In fact, culture itself should drive how executives respond to the critique, said Melissa Moore, senior vice president and chief people officer at Mattersight Corp., a customer experience and behavior analytics company based in Chicago.

Also, responses should be consistent. If a CEO responds to comments, those are reflections of the organization led by the CEO, Moore said. “What we have to remember is that it is perception, and it’s valid,” she said. That perception influences the decisions of a large group of stakeholders, including potential investors as well as current and prospective employees.

In 2016, Mattersight gained about 17 percent of their new hires from job postings on Glassdoor.com, up from 3 percent the year prior. Further, nearly everyone Moore interviewed for roles read comments on the website. Such comments matter, and the negative comments live there just as much as the positive. “We can’t change the comment that’s out there, but we can change other people’s perception of that comment,” Moore said. Therefore, Mattersight leaders decided to respond to all comments. By responding to both the positives and negatives, it shows that leadership listens to all feedback, appreciating both those who love working there, as well as those who have issues, she said. “Negative comments are negative comments. You have to figure out do they represent an area of opportunity?”

RELATED: United Fiasco Reveals Simple Truth: Being a CEO Sucks

After reviewing the feedback, adjust. For instance, after Moore overheard some negative comments about the company, she moved up her scheduled employee feedback sessions by a few months. This will help her identify if there are simply a couple of unhappy workers or if there’s a larger sentiment among employees.

Ignoring comments is not an option. “If you ignore, you’re sending a message to your employees and all future candidates that what people have to say isn’t important,” Moore said. Also, it’s important to not respond in a defensive manner. “If it were a customer, you probably wouldn’t respond that way. I think we have to remember that those employees are our internal customers,” Moore said.

Proceed With Caution

Others are more selective as to how often the CEO themselves should be involved when responding to negative criticism. “A CEO has limited time and resources,” said Anup Srivastava, assistant professor of business administration at Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College. He said that for a CEO to be involved in responses, it should be a serious incident. “I think it’s better for a professional to handle these matters,” he said. Instances of negative comments are becoming increasingly important to handle correctly. “It can spread like wildfire, and it can have legal ramifications and it can lead to serious PR disasters,” Srivastava said.

Instead, he advised having a professional — such as a public relations expert, the legal team or HR — to identify the gravity of the situation and handle it from there. There are some instances where if the CEO responds too quickly, it could be a problem. The same goes for if they are quiet. A professional can better know what to leave untouched and what to address, Srivastava said.

To help prevent criticism in the first place, there needs to be a collaborative culture, said Vlatka Hlupic, professor of business management at University of Westminster and CEO of The Management Shift Consulting Ltd., an advisory and leadership development firm based in London. In this type of workplace, employees tend to be more open to providing constructive criticism rather than pointing fingers. This approach changes how a leader’s responses will form. A CEO might ask more questions and be more collaborative in coming to solutions, she said.

However, negative comments will still appear, but there are certain topics to address in different ways. In instances of personal matters, it’s better to handle the issue one-on-one, Hlupic said. And if business leaders see a pattern emerging in what employees complain about, the CEO needs to act and talk at a group or organizational level, inviting suggestions for improvement. “See it as an opportunity to improve things in [the] organization,” Hlupic said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.