For women entrepreneurs, learning to cope with harsh criticism is as necessary a skill as reading financial statements. And while all entrepreneurs face rejection and harsh feedback, the situation is particularly acute for women.
One study that examined feedback given to male and women leaders found that about 88 percent of the time women received critical feedback, compared to just about 59 percent of the time for men. The key lesson: if you're a woman entrepreneur or leader, it's not a matter of if you'll get roasted, it's when.
Tennis star Serena Williams has received her fair share of personal criticism over the years, targeting everything from her body (too muscular) to her aggressive playing style. This week, one of the most powerful men in tennis criticized the 23-time grand slam winner for the cat suit she wore to the 2018 French Open, saying it "would no longer be accepted...you have to respect the game and the place."
Almost immediately, Serena's fans came rushing to her defense, including such notables as former tennis star Billie Jean King and, ironically, the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The best response, however, came from Williams herself, who presented a text book response that women entrepreneurs who want top shelf advice on how to cope with harsh criticism will be deconstructing for years:
"The president of the French Federation, he's been really amazing. He's been so easy to talk to. My whole team is basically French, so we have a wonderful relationship. I'm sure we would come to an understanding and everything will be OK. Yeah, so it wouldn't be a big deal. He's a really great guy."
Here are 5 lessons to take from Serena's response to help you cope with negative feedback.
1. When they go low, you go high.
Serena kicks off her response by heaping praise on her detractor, describing him as "amazing" and "easy to talk to." By taking the high road, Serena demonstrates deep confidence and leadership. Fighting fire with sugar not only disarms your detractors, but can also be a much more effective tool in eliciting remorse, or even an apology, than taking an aggressive stance.
2. Reinforce your shared humanity by underscoring how you're similar to your detractor.
Harsh criticism can create a combatative atmosphere - an us against them mentality that only deepens the animosity. In highlighting that her "whole team is basically French," Serena underlines the commonalities she shared with her detractor.
When you find commonalities with your detractors, you are not only more likely to win them over, but you also de-escalate the public tension and minimize the distraction such criticism can create.
3. Take solace in numbers.
Facing down criticism is never easy, but sharing the burden with others can soften the blow. As CEO, it's important that you take the lead in handling criticism, as Serena does by issuing a statement. However, by citing that her team, she gracefully reinforces her strength and a spirit of solidarity.
4. Use your response to create, not destroy.
In her brief response, Serena emphasizes that she and the French tennis federation president have a "wonderful relationship", will "come to an understanding," and that "everything will be ok." This exemplifies not only her skill in taking the high ground, but also in painting a picture of a positive future, rather than a combative one.
If you have been publicly criticized and you choose to address it, find ways to reinforce respect, collaboration and understanding. Not only is this a positive, constructive approach, but it further demonstrates your leadership.
5. Downplay, downplay, downplay.
Public spats make a good story, but they benefit no one. What's more, attention is to harsh criticism as oxygen is to fire: fuel. For this reason, when dealing with criticism, look for ways to downplay the situation, as Serena so elegantly does by saying the situation isn't "a big deal."
There isn't a woman leader out there who hasn't coped with her fair share of criticism and harsh feedback. By taking a note out of Serena Williams' book, you'll add powerful criticism-coping skills to your leadership tool kit.