Goldman Sachs executives were skewered on Capitol Hill this week. They were sach-ed. The men faced blistering cross examination by the Senate on the firm’s mortgage market and its role in the country’s financial collapse.

During their time on the hot seat, the current and former leaders, along with the prolific e-mail braggart known as “Fabulous Fab,” were lambasted with biting questions and criticism from outraged lawmakers. Unrepentant, resistant, and uneasy, the executives denied responsibility as lawmakers ripped into them.

Can you imagine handling that kind of fiery criticism? Many businessmen and women are fearful of being blasted in the workplace following presentations or even in team meetings.

As I’ve coached high-powered executives for the past decade, I’ve heard a recurring theme: the fear of criticism. It’s the fear that you’ll be judged harshly or won’t measure up to expectations. This fear is growing because we’re living in a world that encourages cheap shots. Snarky people abound on the Internet and otherwise, unleashing their inner Simon Cowell, judging others severely.

Here’s the problem: fear of criticism is like kryptonite to executives. It has a crippling effect, draining your power and influence. It can cause you to hold back instead of contributing. It may lead you to be defensive when well-meaning people offer constructive feedback. Or it may cause you to play it too safe and offer a vanilla version of what could have been a much more compelling contribution.

Even the most capable leaders can be crippled by a secret fear of criticism. Here are a few tips to help you overcome it:

  • Resist the temptation to be defensive. Do you often jump in and cut off criticism with a knee-jerk defensive reaction? If so, you may unwittingly escalate the situation. Cutting off tough critics often causes them to grow more determined. As a result, they may zap you even harder next time. Defensiveness and evasiveness can also turn off well-meaning allies.
  • Keep the criticizer’s intent in mind. Bosses, co-workers and others in your life may offer feedback because they want to help you. Their constructive feedback may be intended to help you improve your performance, not as a cheap shot or a grandstanding opportunity. Consider their true intent. Maybe they’re sharing wisdom from their own lessons learned. Is it possible you’re overly sensitive to criticism?
  • Ride the wave. One of the best approaches to handling criticism is to listen carefully and let the person finish completely. Resist the temptation to deflect point-by-point. By hearing their full point of view, you stand the best chance to uncover the real issue and correct what may need to be fixed.
  • Conquer your inner critic. Often, the critical voice in your head is carrying too much weight. It can be far worse than anyone else’s potshot. Give it a rest. Starting today, create a positive daily dialogue to overrule your habit of critical self-talk.
  • Don’t be an avoider. There’s an old saying, “To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” Clearly avoidance isn’t the answer. Turn it around. Face it. Get the confrontation over with instead of dreading it all day. Often, reality isn’t nearly as bad as the situation you imagined and avoided.

Some people trace their fear of criticism back to childhood, when they experienced excessive criticism that’s gotten stuck in their head like a broken record. Others have received tongue-lashings from hypercritical bosses and had their confidence crushed. Whatever its source, learning to conquer criticism gracefully is a sign of maturity and leadership.