In my life, I've been involved nearly 200 theatre productions. I was heavily involved in high school, and was a theatre major in college. Even while I was in the mortgage industry, I continued acting and singing in local productions. Additionally, I was the artistic director of a growing community theatre, and founded a successful mystery dinner theatre company. It's a passion that has given me great joy, and also served me well throughout my career.
I've written before about the critical leadership skills you can learn from the arts. But the theatre in particular is an excellent place to develop one of the most important skills you'll ever learn in business: taking criticism. In theatre as in business, it's almost always a team effort. Everyone has a role to play, from the salesperson to the HR representative, and from the director to the prop manager. Things need to run smoothly throughout the process, or else the whole thing is at risk of collapsing. To keep people on track, ensure the team is cohesive, and create a great product that your audience wants to consume, you need to know how to receive, filter, and apply criticism.
Many people think it's the responsibility of the provider to give criticism in the right way or to filter it. People want to receive it in a way that is appealing. But let's get this straight - criticism is criticism. Almost nobody enjoys being told that they could be doing something different or better. Theatre people buy into the idea that all criticism is being shared for the good of the whole (even when it's not!). They recognize that it's their choice and responsibility to use that criticism for good in whatever form it's provided.
Here are several useful business lessons I learned about taking criticism from my theatre career:
1. Compartmentalize Emotion
A helpful way to receive criticism is detaching yourself. You may feel some connection to what you've created, and you may even feel proud of it, but that doesn't mean your specific creation is the best piece for the final product. Remember that it's not personal - it's business (or theatre!). Don't bring your own baggage to it. Do you feel like you're always getting picked on by a superior? Let it go - you're on the same team, trying to achieve the same goal. You'll know you're properly compartmentalizing if you can ask clarifying questions about their feedback - without getting defensive. First and foremost, your focus should be on the customer or audience, and making sure you deliver the best product possible.
2. Take The Hit
They say that if you can't take the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. It's certainly true in theatre and business. You need to get used to routine, detailed criticism, or you won't last long in that world. To keep your prerequisite emotional detachment, remember that the feedback isn't an indictment of you - it's just a fact that needs attention before the job can be done. You won't get anywhere by them being nice to you. Then listen carefully to what the person is asking of you. Try to understand why they feel that way, remembering that your contribution is one piece of a much larger puzzle that must coordinate. Attack your new mission with the same zeal you started with. Your audience and customers deserve your best!
Believe it or not, all criticism is useful. Feedback forces you to consider an alternative and make a decision. If someone provides criticism and you think it's a better idea than yours, great! The product is improved. If someone criticizes you and you still decide to do it your way, then at least now you're doing what you're doing with intent. In his seminal book Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the importance of "What if..." questions. In order to be thorough and successful, you have to consider all the possibilities, including the nightmare scenarios. If you don't, you won't be prepared if they come about. So the next time you receive criticism, remember that feedback is a sign that the other person cares. Consider the alternative - you're trying to do what's best. Who cares how it was delivered? Who even cares if it was right or wrong?