April 11, 2015 in Leadership

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” – Gandhi

It was late in the day on a Friday, when I heard from a dear colleague. She didn't want me to know that she was close to tears, but her voice gave her away. When she told me what had happened, it was easy to be empathetic- the same thing had happened to me a few weeks ago. Someone had sent an anonymous note to her supervisor. It was evident that the writer disagreed with a decision she had made, but rather than contributing to her growth or the growth of her school, it was cruel. Mean-spirited, anonymous critiques give no opportunity for dialogue or clarifying questions. I realize that there are times when people feel obligated to report information but fear retaliation. That’s not the kind of anonymous note to which I am referring. I am talking about notes or comments clearly written with the intention of harming and not helping.

I am not ashamed to say that I have collected more than a few of these notes over the years. I have found that mean-spirited, anonymous notes and comments have some commonalities. First, they always indicate that the writer represents a big group. I attribute this to the complainer’s mistaking others’ lack of response to ranting as agreement- either that, or just plain stretching the truth. Second, the issue at hand is only briefly mentioned. Most of the note is centered on personal insults. For female leaders, there is usually some comment related to appearance or demeanor. I often wonder if men experience this, too. Third, the perspective of the writer clearly indicates a lack of leadership experience. The issue at hand is typically not one that a leader would view as important. This point may be obvious because leadership takes courage, and courageous people own the opinions that they feel moved to express. They aren't afraid to discuss their points of view.  

I used to think that fantasizing about revenge or writing an unsent response were useful ways to cope. Don’t get me wrong, they do feel good. The problem is that these responses steal precious time and energy away from what truly matters. So, instead, I choose to accept the fact the being a leader makes me visible and vulnerable. I remember what vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown, suggests. She no longer gives attention to anonymous critics. If you are not in the arena fighting fear and trying to grow like Brene, she is simply not interested in your feedback. I am still a work in progress, but here’s my new mantra: I stand tall in my truth and the belief that I always try to do what is best. If someone feels the need to sling some mud, sling away… that’s what bubble baths are for. 

What are your strategies for dealing with mean-spirited, anonymous criticism?

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