Back in 1997 when I finished grad school my university held an outdoor graduation. It was a beautiful summer day. The graduates were seated in rows of chairs facing the front where the dean, faculty and administration were seated facing the graduates. There was a small stage and a microphone in front of the them. It was a small event with something like 50 graduates. The dean spoke first and then announced that he had pre-invited the graduates to say a few words if they wanted to. Grads were allowed to come forth and speak, or ‘pass’ if they wanted. I’d say there were about a third that chose to speak. Those remarks were not very long and included the obligatory ‘thank you’s’ to family member and friends who helped the individual get through grad school. You could almost give those remarks right now from your chair as most all were straight-forward and predictable. Except one.
One graduate chose to make a speech outlining all of her complaints against the university. I remember she pulled out a piece of paper and began to read her remarks. She criticized the student services, quality of professors, academic policies, the administration, staff and so on. It was not very fitting for the occasion and I remember it making me feel uncomfortable. No doubt many of my fellow graduates felt similarly. A day of such celebration took a turn in the other direction and it was downright ugly.
One’s natural instinct was to look at the dean, faculty and administration so as to observe their reaction. My priority was to zoom in on the dean. After all, he was the man in charge, the leader of the pack – and the one that was being graded in the moment by the speaker and all those in attendance. Surely his body language would convey his disappointment and even embarrassment of the moment. Not so. That’s not what I saw. The dean was seated very comfortably and the look on his face was one of pride. He was indifferent to what was being said and looked relaxed, poised and completely in control. When the graduate was done with her remarks, the dean approached the microphone, thanked her for her comments and went on to say that he and his team prided themselves on building a culture where ‘free speech’ was held in high esteem. No attempt to rebut her remarks. No defensive statements or explanations. He kept it simple and made it about that graduate’s right to speak her mind. He tied it all in by associating free speech with the brand of the university and its faculty. By handling it this way he made it a non-issue. And he did it in about 30 seconds. I remember thinking if this didn’t bother the dean then why should it bother me. In fact, by handling the matter with extreme self-confidence he made her remarks a non-issue. He gave her remarks no air. It was over. And instead of this incident resulting in a ‘black mark’ on the university, it really left a black mark on the graduate who spoke.
I learned a valuable lesson that day on how to handle criticism and complaints. Getting defensive and pushing back only serves to worsen things. It gives legs to the complaints. Better to handle criticism or complaints with poise and grace. In this way you often neutralize the criticism and leave those in the room thinking favorable thoughts about your emotional intelligence – and your leadership.