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.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a new book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.