Handling Nonprofit Criticism: Get Naked, Stay Naked
Nonprofit criticism matters. Here's why.
We recently hired someone to come into Turnkey and figuratively kick us in the shins. We asked her to “secret shop” us. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s when someone comes in and acts like a customer (in our case a fundraiser), goes through the customer experience you provide and then critiques it. What a horrifically painful gut punch. I use physical terms because that is how it felt. I highly recommend the experience if you want to get better, but getting better often hurts.
We knew going into the exercise that what we would hear would cause us to become defensive. Even if we managed to control our outward demeanors, inside we would be telling ourselves, “I told everyone we should have changed that,” “The software just won’t do it another way,” or “Not my department/fault/ownership.”
The Turnkey team prepped for the consultant’s feedback by asking our in-house psychologist (one half of this writing duo, Otis Fulton) to get us in the right head space to receive the feedback. Following is the bulk of the counsel he gave us. It helped us that day and has helped us every day since to understand how we are reacting to feedback.
It turns out that there are a couple of biases that all of us share that make it difficult to be on the receiving end of criticism. These hard-wired biases are the result of humans’ evolutionary history; we all exhibit them to a greater or lesser degree.
Fundamental Attribution Error
The first bias is what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is our tendency to attribute behavior to personal characteristics rather than situational factors. Here’s an example. Suppose I told you that my neighbor Bob is a 38-year old guy with two kids, ages three and five. Before they were born, he played golf every weekend. But now, he doesn’t play golf on weekends at all. What kind of a father do you think that Bob is?
If you’re like most people, you probably said that Bob is a pretty good dad! But a better answer is, we don’t know. Because what if I changed one sentence a little, like this—“But now, he doesn’t play golf on weekends at all, because that’s when his separation agreement says he has custody of the kids.” Hmm, he may not be an All-American father after all. But on first blush, we are quick to attribute behavior to personal qualities rather than a situation.
And we do this for ourselves too, although to a lesser extent. In one study, when something bad happened to someone else, subjects blamed it on that person’s behavior or personality 65 percent of the time. But, when something bad happened to the subjects, they blamed themselves only 44 percent of the time, blaming the situation they were in more often.
Regardless of how well you handle criticism, studies have shown that being criticized causes most of us to feel poorly about ourselves and can even affect our productivity. We focus so much energy on dealing with the criticism that it’s difficult to focus on other things. Criticism also does weird things to our perceptions. We’re all motivated to maintain a favorable view of ourselves. When we hear information that conflicts with our self-image, our instinct is to change the information, rather than ourselves. This impairs our ability to understand and even remember the criticism clearly.
And we are particularly attuned to threats to our self-image. Our heightened awareness of things that can harm us is called the negativity bias, which is why unpleasant remarks and experiences stick with us so much more than nice ones. Asked to explain why we find negative events, like criticism, to be so disturbing, psychologist Roy Baumeister famously said, “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good,” which is true enough if a lion is chasing you. Not so much sitting at your desk or in a conference room with colleagues.
4 Categories of Handling Criticism
Despite our evolutionary bias to feel threatened by criticism, we all handle criticism differently. Psychologists have broken the ways we handle criticism into four broad categories. While it’s unlikely that an individual will fit into one of these profiles perfectly, knowing which one best describes you can be a useful tool for assessing how you handle criticism. The four styles are:
- Internalizer. These people accept criticism pretty well on the surface, while internally putting themselves down and being overly hard on themselves.
- Self-Convincer. Much like the Internalizer, the Self-Convincer takes negative feedback very personally. However, rather than internally blaming themselves, they deflect the blame onto others, back onto the person who is being critical or onto some “fall guy.”
- Defender. Defenders exhibit a mild, albeit somewhat defensive, reaction to negative feedback. They think that their critic is somewhat misguided and are okay to leave it at that.
- Feedback Seeker. These people actively ask questions about the critique. They might feel put down by the remarks, but they don’t beat themselves up and don’t deflect blame for the criticized actions onto the person giving them or someone else. They try to understand why they think what they do. Feedback seekers are rare, but most of us believe this describes us.
Sometimes defenses are useful. There are times and places when we might want to avoid a challenge. The trouble comes when we aren’t aware that we are using defensive strategies. Then we become that person who “can't take the truth.” We’ve all seen it happen sometime, somewhere in a staff meeting. It can be difficult to watch and doesn’t help solve problems.
Dealing With Criticism
Dealing with criticism—either on a personal or organizational level—is necessary for effective change to occur. What can we do to get the most out of criticism, to make it into a positive experience?
First, separate the criticism from the self. Most of us take criticism more personally than we should, so it’s important to separate criticism from our sense of self. Try not to view it as criticism about who we are as a person, but rather, as feedback about an individual action, a specific event or a particular situation. Learn to view criticism as feedback about something you did and not feedback about who you are. It’s difficult to do, and it can even be career limiting if you can’t do it.
In addition to viewing criticism as situational rather than personal, you can manage critical interactions in ways that get better outcomes. One important thing to do is to ask open-ended questions. It shows people that you’re listening to their feedback and allows you to learn more about why they viewed an event the way they did. A couple of examples: “How would you like me to handle this situation next time?” or “Tell me, how did this situation affect you or your team?”
Finally, don’t view mistakes as entirely bad. If you’re a professional, you’re in the decision-making business; that’s your job. The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who don’t call the shots; it’s impossible to get it right all the time. Instead of feeling bad about mistakes and the resulting criticisms, accept them and view it as a learning opportunity.
It’s tough to strip away one’s defenses, but it has big rewards. So, get naked.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.