Conquer Criticism: Tips to Overcome It

We’re living in a harsh, harsh world. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you can now get a daily dose of cheap shots here on the Internet. Follow the comment section after most web entries and you’ll find boatloads of hyper-critical, snarky comments. Turn on your TV and there it is again – the Simon Cowell effect – people openly judging and grading others harshly. Ouch.

As I’ve coached high-powered clients recently, I’ve been struck by a recurring, performance-draining concern that leaders share with me (and one I’ve faced, too) that craters confidence: fear of criticism. The fear that you won’t measure up to expectations and will be judged severely as a result.

Fear of criticism is like kryptonite to a leader.

It’s a powerful deterrent that drains your confidence and power. Sometimes your biggest critic is your own inner voice. Sometimes it’s others’ ruthless opinions. Either way, it leads to one of three depleting communication styles:

  1. Holding back instead of contributing, in order to avoid having your ideas criticized
  2. Being overly defensive when well-meaning people offer useful suggestions, or
  3. Playing it too safe by communicating a boring, vanilla version of your ideas instead of aiming for outstanding.

Most leaders tell me their fear of criticism pre-dates the Internet. Some trace it back to childhood when they experienced excessive criticism that stuck in their heads like a broken record. Others say they witnessed tongue-lashings in the workplace and fear receiving the same fate, which causes them to lack confidence and reduce risks.

As an executive communication coach, I’ve learned there’s no connection between competence and confidence. Even the most capable leaders can be crippled by the secret fear of criticism. Here are a few tips to help you overcome it:

  • Forget perfection, think excellence. High performers often strive for flawless, which means aiming for the impossible. Think excellence, instead, to get over that self-limiting hurdle. Give yourself permission to be your best at this moment, not the best of all time.
  • Switch your focus from internal to external. You don’t want to hear this, but ego is involved. Often, a fear of criticism reveals that you’re too concerned with what others think of you. Turn it around. Manage your thoughts to concentrate on meeting your receiver’s needs, not on how they may be sizing you up.
  • Don’t be an avoider. Criticism doesn’t have to actually occur to cause anxiety or injury. Perhaps that critical voice in your head is carrying too much weight. Learn to face your fears. Starting today, create a positive inner daily dialogue to overrule and replace your hypercritical self-talk.
  • Keep the criticizer’s goal in mind. Some bosses, clients, and others may offer criticism because they want to help you perform at the top of your game. Their feedback may be intended solely to improve your performance, not to take a personal shot. Perhaps they’re sharing the wisdom of lessons learned.
  • Resist the temptation to become defensive. Do you jump in and cut off criticism with knee-jerk reactions? If so, you may escalate the situation. Tough critics can grow more determined to zap you again next time. And in these cases, there will be a next time. Stay open-minded.
  • Ask for clarification. One of the best approaches to handling criticism is to listen carefully, let the person finish, and then ask for specific clarifications. That way, you hear their full point of view and stand the best chance to correct what may need to be fixed.


Learning to conquer criticism gracefully is a sign of leadership and maturity. It communicates respect – both for yourself and the others who share their viewpoints.

Just don’t fall into the trap of doling out cruel criticisms yourself. Shallow criticism without direction is a useless power play.

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Globally recognized as the leading voice in leadership influence, Connie Dieken helps C-suite and senior executives use scientific insights to elevate their influence and presence.


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