3 tips for handling public criticism (from someone who wishes she’d done it better)

by  Jane Perdue  |  Self Leadership

In my leadership book of fair play, one of the basic rules is to praise in public and criticize in private. I firmly believe that making people look — and feel — stupid (regardless how egregious, or not, their offense may be) in front of others serves no one well.

So imagine my shock and surprise to have a project partner level some hard-hitting criticism my way during a conference call with the project sponsor. We had co-authored a blog piece, passing it back and forth countless times as we edited and refined the content. Finally satisfied with our writing, we had scheduled the call. Just after exchanging pleasantries, my writing partner declares that I incorrectly entered a reference note, used the wrong dash mark, made a grammatical error in the second paragraph and then went on to explain in detail the error of my ways.

For me, it was one of those moments when the world slows down (like when you know you’re going to rear-end the vehicle in front of you) and images, thoughts and feelings collide in your heart and mind. Unfortunately, my anger – in its incredible hulk-like intensity – prevailed as these words tumbled out of my mouth in a most sarcastic tone, “Well, blah-blah name, thanks so much for correcting me…NOW!”

One of those epic awkward silent moments ensued. I can only imagine what the third-party on the call must have been thinking.

I’ve mentally replayed that moment several times. And my reaction is always the same: chagrin and regret that I didn’t take the high road and simply, and kindly, say “thank you.” I let my feelings of having been betrayed and unfairly one-upped win. A real personal leadership no-no.

Sadly the world is full of people ready to steam roll over you to increase their standing, so changing that is beyond your control. But, what you do control is your reaction when you’re unexpectedly and publicly criticized.

My three learnings and going-forward tips for handling public criticism

1) Be gracious in the moment. Responding as I did only resulted in two people — rather than one — rolling around in the mud. My grandma always reminded us that you get more flies with honey than vinegar. That old bromide will never be untrue. The vinegar pourers might get some momentary acclaim and/or notoriety, but take the high road. The spotlight may not shine as brightly there but you know you’ve done the right thing.

2) Don’t completely ignore the criticism, just take it off-line. Follow-up after the call, meeting or encounter to ask your criticizer for more details and feedback on how to do better in the future. Bring your honey, of course!

3) Be bold and make the ask. Your request for future criticism (constructive or otherwise) to be delivered privately might be ignored, but the important thing is that you stuck up for yourself.

Bringing civility back starts with me…and you…remembering and committing to taking the high road.

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About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
Jane is a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. She loves chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Tim Milburn (@timage)  |  10 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Jane. My favorite line of your post…”Bringing civility back starts with me.” Thank you for providing solid advice on handling a difficult situation. We will always get criticism, the question (or opportunity) is in how we handle it.

Jane Perdue  |  10 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Tim –

Thanks much for your kind words and apt observation that we’re the ones who control our destiny. Kinda funny, isn’t it, that we learn best the hard way?!


Zerra Belser-Davis  |  10 Feb 2012  |  Reply

I love the tips shared. I’ve noticed that women tend to enjoy the public criticism and will privately praise you. The opposite has often been true when it comes to my mail co-workers and superiors. I’ve always taken the high road and will continue to do so! Honey is an awesome delight that can flow anywhere… Vinegar is another story.

Jane Perdue  |  11 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Zerra –

Thanks much for your kind words, and so glad to hear that you take the high road…awesome!

Susan Shapiro Barash wrote an interesting book about how women treat other women, “Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry,” that gives many examples of what you reference…enjoy!


Zerra Belser-Davis  |  11 Feb 2012  | 

Thank you for replying. I will continue to take the high road. Betterment and elevated focus work well together. Thanks also for recommending the women’s rivalry book. I will pick it up this week. My dad used to always say that guys were team oriented because of sports and that girls were always striving for that Number #1 spot. He told my 2 sisters and I to look at life and television (Top Model, Trump’s show, and Lifetime- ‘???’) to get his point… Thanks again for introducing this topic along with solutions. (P.S. Mail was transposed with male in my post. Proofreading… :-))

Jen Borders  |  10 Feb 2012  |  Reply

It takes a lot to be gracious in the moment, but being aware of that option makes it more likely to happen. That’s a tip I’ll take with me. Thanks for sharing!

Jane Perdue  |  11 Feb 2012  |  Reply

Jen –

You are so right….that controlling ourselves is the first challenge! Clear that hurdle, and we’re much better positioned for success!

Thanks for sharing,


Sonia Di Maulo  |  11 Feb 2012  |  Reply


Thank you for sharing this personal event with us. I have been there myself. I could even feel the power of defensiveness take over and it was awful. There have also been times where I was able to take the high-road, and it did feel good: a personal victory.

I think it’s important to understand that (fortunately) we’re human, and our feelings are natural. What matters is what you do with the situation after it blows up in your face. It’s never too late to take the high-road, for me, you and leaders everywhere!

Thanks, Jane. ALWAYS love your writings and wisdom, typos and all!


Jane Perdue  |  02 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Sonia – so love it that we’ve shared yet another life event in common! Your comment about handling these situations appropriately, recognizing we can’t always avoid them, gets right to the heart of the matter. And typos seem to follow me around! Thanks for your kind words about my posts…hugs and smiles coming your way!

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