Are Your Critics Actually the Secret to Success?

Nobody likes criticism. But seeking out the right criticism from the right people, and harnessing the power of those insights, might just be your greatest secret for success.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #644
The Quick And Dirty

Harness the power of your critics with these 5 essential steps:

  1. Find the right people
  2. Ask the right questions
  3. Listen with humility
  4. Make course corrections
  5. Live by the golden rule

Six years ago, as I prepared to launch my consulting business, I was fueled by the overwhelming support and validation I received from friends and family. Clearly I was onto something ... because everyone around me told me so.

But one night, just before my shingle was hung, I had a chat with a cynical uncle that gave me pause. “What if you don’t find clients?” he asked. “Or what if you find too many and you can’t juggle the work? Or you make a big mistake? Or there is too much competition out there?”

This conversation let the air out of my tires. But it's also the one that prompted me to sharpen and refine the business I ultimately launched. And by my standards, it’s absolutely been a success.

Cheerleading is great. But sometimes, it’s exactly the opposite we need to hear.

When you have an idea—a business, a product, or just something different you’d like to try at work—it’s natural to seek out supporters. We get a boost of confidence from everyone who's will tell us why our idea is a win. And cheerleading is great. But sometimes, it’s exactly the opposite we need to hear.

As the Harvard Business Review reports:

Avoiding negative feedback is both wrong-headed and dangerous. Wrong-headed because, when delivered the right way, at the right time, criticism is, in fact, highly motivating. Dangerous because without awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve.

So if you’re ready to bring an idea or an inkling from good to great, let’s talk about how you can find and harness the right critics to help you make it shine.

1. Find the right people 

Have you ever heard of the Segway? Invented in 2001, it was a brilliantly designed “self-balancing personal transporter.” Technologically, it was genius. And its inventor, Dean Kamen, brought it to market with gusto.

Game-changing though its design was, the product ultimately flopped. Why? Because, according to this Fast Company piece, “Nobody involved in the project ever really stepped back to ask whether consumers would be willing to spend a few thousand dollars to buy a product that helps them achieve a goal they can already satisfy for free. It would have been useful to have more people in the inner management team calling into question the core market assumptions at the basis of the business model.”

So what does this mean for you? Consider whatever you’re working on—product idea, side hustle, process improvement. Who do you need to take action, to buy or support? A customer? An executive?

Find someone who can represent their point of view. Then, be sure to get their feedback, including potential criticism, early and often.

Make sure it’s someone you trust. My uncle, for example, may be cynical and risk-averse. But he also has my best interests at heart. He wasn’t trying to knock me down. He wanted to help protect me.

2. Ask the right questions

Now that you’ve identified your who let’s focus on what and how.

Asking versions of “do you like it?” will generally prompt support and validation. But remember, your mission is to find opportunities for improvement. 

You’ll want to set the stage and choose questions that are designed to trigger meaningful feedback.

According to the Harvard Business Review, we’ve come to equate saying “I see it differently” or “I don’t agree” with being angry, rude, or unkind. So, disagreeing or offering criticism makes most people uncomfortable.

That's why it's important to let critics know when poking holes in your big idea is exactly what you want. You might explain, “I’ve worked hard and I’m proud of this work. I’ve heard lots of praise, but that’s not what I’m seeking today. I’m asking you to help me find any blind spots or opportunities. I’m counting on your candor.”

Then go ahead and ask questions like:

  • What's the one feature you’d change or eliminate?
  • What's the one thing that could set this up to fail?
  • What’s something that’s missing?
  • What haven’t I considered about the audience or market?

3. Listen with humility 

It’s hard to ask for candor. It can be even harder to hear and process it. But to improve your work, you’ll need to pull down your defenses and remember this criticism isn’t personal. 

You’re not required to accept every bit of feedback offered or to make every change suggested. But it is your job to evaluate the feedback thoughtfully and be intentional with what you choose to action.

If hearing critical feedback is hard for you (it’s certainly hard for me!), then take the advice offered in this Entrepreneur article: “Instead of taking the feedback as the absolute truth that applies all the time, look for the 1 percent grain of truth.”

What is one idea you can extract from someone’s message that helps you be just a little bit better?

4. Make course corrections 

You’ve asked, they’ve answered—you’re already winning.

Now it’s time to choose which actions you’ll take. Where you’ll refine or adjust a feature, a price, or a key message.

Critical feedback is only as good as the action you take with it. Change features, tweak pricing, test new messaging. And be willing to keep testing and learning as you go. 

I think back to that evening with my uncle. I could have let his critical questions shut me down, be the reason I decided not to launch my business.

Whether you loved or hated what you heard, what changes will those insights to help you make?

But instead, I found the 1% grain of truth in them. I believed in my idea. And he also made valid points. He pushed me to refine my positioning, and to carefully calculate my minimum viable income so I’d know how much financial risk I could afford to take.

Whether you loved or hated what you heard, what changes will those insights to help you make?

5. Give as good as you get

Having tasted the value that well-delivered critical feedback can offer, I now make an effort to offer it where I see opportunity for someone else’s growth, whether they're a client, friend, or colleague.

Here are the basic principles I follow as I try to role model the behavior I want to sow:

  • I ask permission. Well-meaning though he was, my uncle’s feedback was hard to hear in part because I hadn’t been ready for it. So, when I see an opportunity to offer unsolicited feedback, I ask if it would be OK to share. And if not, I just skip it.
  • I frame a challenge as a question. I may have insight or opinions, but I’m not the arbiter of what’s true. So instead of saying "you should do XYZ" I pose a question, like "have you considered exploring…" or "do you think your customer will see value in…?"
  • I label it "food for thought." I always want to person to know they're welcome to take or leave my advice. I won't be offended if they don't think what I have to offer hits the mark.

I find that by living these practices, people in my circle are more likely to reciprocate with me, and their insights continue to challenge me to be my best self.

So now it’s your turn. Where is your opportunity to challenge a piece of your own work? Run your critics through this process and get ready to shine.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.