The Essentials: Handling Fierce Criticism


AMY BERNSTEIN: If you’re in charge of an organization or in any role where you’re visible and outspoken—if you host a podcast—chances are that at some point people will criticize you, sometimes fiercely, sometimes publicly. Are you ready for that? Ruchika Tulshyan wasn’t, at least not at the beginning of her career as a finance journalist and advocate for diversity in business. She’d written an article about a new immigration category for the spouses of work visa holders, and in the comments section a reader called her, let’s just say the C word.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: And I was absolutely shocked. I mean, none of my training as a journalist had prepared me for it. There weren’t conversations really being had. And the little bit that I was kind of hearing, a lot of it was from male journalists who were like, Oh, let it just roll off your shoulders. It’s no big deal. And this nameless, faceless troll had really just attacked me ad hominem for who I was. It was really painful, and it’s been well over a decade since that happened. I wish I could say that was the last time, but as a woman on the internet, as a woman of color on the internet, it still regularly happens, often in actually now more subtle ways.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Today, Ruchika runs a consultancy through which she advises executives on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also gives talks and writes books about DEI and posts about it on LinkedIn. In putting herself out there, she’s faced a lot of pushback that ranges from skepticism to downright harassment, and she’s had to find ways to cope, and she’ll share those with us.

You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Bernstein. In this series, The Essentials, Amy G and I cover key career skills by bringing together experts on those skills and audience members who are looking to get better at them. The thing we like about grounding these episodes in the specifics of individual women’s experience is how it makes management principles less theoretical and practical advice more realistic.

My two guests today, Ruchika and Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar, are experts on communicating strategically about contentious issues. They developed that expertise in part from their own encounters with fierce criticism.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: And when we’re put on the spot in those moments, we have to create that pause in order to let our minds catch up and our emotions tune down.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Patti’s also an executive coach. Before getting into consulting recently, she spent a long stretch of her career rising up through the University of Central Oklahoma, the last three of her 15 years there as its president, until 2023.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: As a university president, you’re in the spotlight. Everything you say can and will be used in some form or fashion to either represent what you believe or feel or what you believe or feel in relationship to the university. And so, you have to be very thoughtful about the representation that you’re putting forward for the number of people that are leaning on you for leadership.

AMY BERNSTEIN: On occasion, the everyday attention and scrutiny intensified, even startled her, but like Ruchika, she found ways to cope. Listening to them recount how they responded to fierce criticism will, I hope, help you think about how you might respond, both when you see it coming and when you don’t.

First of all, thank you both for being here today. This is a tough topic to discuss, and I can tell you where it came from. About three years ago when the Women at Work podcast was still very new, I was checking our reviews. I think we had been talking about them and how people really seemed to like our podcast. And so, I thought, you know what, I could use a little shot of good feeling. I’m going to go check out our reviews on Apple Podcasts. Yeah, what a mistake, because I read the first one, it was great. Second one…kept scrolling down, and then I get to a review titled—titled—not even buried in a review, titled, “I don’t like Amy B.” And that was just, it was like a slap across the face. I am a little embarrassed how much it hurt.

So, that is where this idea came from. It’s how do you deal with that kind of criticism that rocks you to your core, that you can’t even really answer most of the time. So, there it is. There’s the origin story, the most trivial, thinnest-skin story of all.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: But I actually think that every time I’ve ever been told that I’m not likable very directly is actually probably the most painful. Those moments feel really, like, they get under your skin.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: And Amy B, I like you.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh, heart Patti, heart Patti.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Heart, right back at you.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I want to throw this open to your stories. Patti, I wonder if you’d like to start.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Well, absolutely. Thank you for having me here today. And when I think about criticism, in my experience, what I had to do for myself is remember, are they criticizing me as a person or are they criticizing a decision I’ve made? Are they criticizing an outcome that they’re experiencing?

Our university had a significant budget deficit, which is not unique in public higher education today, nor is it really unique in public higher education in general. But it had reached a fever pitch for the institution that I was leading; and having been a CFO there leading up to that moment of leadership as president, I knew firsthand what was going on. I knew what had been done and hadn’t been done. I knew what we had tried, I knew how we had communicated that; and in the end, it was my responsibility in this new role to address it.

And we had run out of all of those tricks in our bag to do everything we could to push it off as long as we could. And it was time to deal with it. And so the decisions that I had to make with the support of a great team and input from the rest of campus was we had to address this, we had to fill this gap, we had to stop spending more than we were bringing in, and it meant that we were going to have to cut faculty positions, which is something that we had really worked to not impact for years and years. We had let go of dozens and dozens of staff positions, and we were to a place where we needed to let go of some other positions that had more direct impact on our students.

And of course, that didn’t sit well with the faculty, rightfully so, and our students were also not happy about that. So, student protests, greeted in my office by a hundred students who were not happy, who were armed with general information, but not necessarily fully accurate information and trying to explain and calm and quell, at the same time holding your footing and knowing we have to do this—this is the tough stuff that we’re all here to do.

And so that was the first time that came to mind for me when you said, when was the time that you had felt the heat? That surely was a time I felt the heat. I was on the news, I was in the newspapers. I had presidents from across the country calling me because they saw it on their news. So, there were things that didn’t feel good in those moments, but when I stepped back and I re-watched the video, I went back to the scene of the moment, and I read the articles in the paper again. I listened to the student voices, and I thought, you know what, they’re not criticizing me personally in most of this. It was really the outcome that they were criticizing and that helped me frame the moment for myself.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That shows tremendous poise to be able to say, This isn’t about me. This is about a tough decision I had to make that’s going to have a really tough impact on them.

Ruchika, I wonder if you have any questions for Patti about what she just described?

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: Yeah, I mean, in a lot of the work I do advising leaders, and especially when I’m working with women leaders, especially when I’m working with leaders of color who have to make announcements like this, it can be really, really fraught. So, because this is the Women at Work podcast, I’m wondering if you ever felt like being a woman impacted the level of criticism you got? And just thinking of my own experience, was there criticism that was targeted at the fact that you’re a woman and perhaps your decision making wasn’t entirely sound?

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: I have to say, I never was dealing with a comment that someone was so bold as to say, it’s because you’re a female. I usually work so hard to assume that everything is coming from a neutral perspective that I think I overlook some of those barbs that are aimed at me in that way. I had people who even were issuing some complaints, say they often bring in female leaders during times of financial distress—and I see the head nods—and I thought, well, gosh, that’s interesting. It’s coincidental that it happened to me. And so I started to go back and look through the news and look at some of the people who had dealt with some of this stuff before and the institutions that really struggled with financial health, and there was a pattern there. Now, was that on the board’s mind when they hired me? I don’t assume so, but I do know I happened to be a person who had what would appear to be the right qualifications at the right time to deal with this kind of issue.

So, I never felt it was directly aimed at me because I was a female. But I will say I was criticized more heavily and probably challenged about my credentials more than others. I remember in one of the student protests, one of the students said, “Do you feel like you’re competent to do your job?” And I thought—first of all, they were all wearing masks because it was kind of in the middle of COVID time, deep COVID times. And I didn’t hear it at first, and so I said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you.” And they said it again. And I thought, I think I just heard somebody question whether I’m competent enough. And I thought, okay, well, I’m not going to be arrogant about this. “Of course,” I just answered the question, “Yes, of course I believe I’m competent to do this.” But have they asked anybody else that lately? I don’t think so.

So, Ruchika, I wish I could say it was completely neutral, but I have to say, I think there are a lot of influences there. I’m also a gay female, and that adds another layer, I think subconsciously for some people, politically for other people and so I think there are just a lot of dynamics going on at that moment.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I want to follow on that. So, you were starting to piece together what might’ve been a pattern. I’m wondering if that softened the blow for you or how did it affect the way you felt in the moment?

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Well, I felt like there was a team of other people in the world that needed me to be courageous in that moment. I knew that my campus needed me to be, I knew that the young students needed me to be, they needed to see what honest debate and different point of views looked like, different approaches, different ways to get your point across. But I felt like in that moment, gosh, I can’t just tuck tail. I can’t back down. I have to be the woman in the arena, so to speak. I literally was surrounded by these students, and I thought this is their opportunity to see how to handle being questioned, how to handle being criticized, how to handle a moment when you disagree with so many people and you’re feeling that heat.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: I have to say that I’m really glad we’re having this conversation because I think a lot of the traditional management and leadership advice of, criticism is good and just let it roll off your back and you can’t be liked and respected, so it’s fine, just get over it, has never resonated with me. And even more so as I see again, women leaders, leaders of color, leaders with other historically excluded identities come “under fire” because that ability to be like, it’s okay if I’m not liked or I don’t care if someone criticizes me, is really uniquely, I would say, reserved for people who’ve just historically not had their authority questioned.

I’ve also received criticism, Patti, on my competence when I’ve taught at universities. In a class of 20, I can receive 18 student evaluations that are like, this is wonderful. I’m so glad. This was a great course.

I learned a lot. And there’ll be two which will say, is she even qualified to teach? Or, I didn’t like this course or I didn’t like this class. And I would say the last decade for me has been focused on figuring out how to unlearn the messaging that I was deeply conditioned with, that I have to be likable and palatable to everyone. And at some point you just have to say, there are going to be people who are just not going to like the message. And I think for some of us, we have to understand that our message might be sound, and there are people who are going to look at us being the deliverers of that message and will always just be challenged and triggered by the fact that it’s someone in this package delivering this message that doesn’t align with what they believe. And you have to be okay with that too.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: That’s a great, great point, Ruchika. Thank you for sharing that. It triggers something for me too because I too, I mean, I want to be liked. Who doesn’t want to be liked? So, it stings when people attack you personally or say, I don’t like you, Amy B.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh, thanks for reminding me.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: I’m so sorry. But you have to have the courage to be disliked. And that’s something that I think we’re not so practiced at.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, I want to talk about how we go about taking this moment of attack, of criticism, and processing it so that we can deal with it in a way that is constructive. So, that’s what you were able to do, Patti, when people came after you, often with wrong information. How did you process that?

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Well, it’s not easy. No matter how much you think you’re ready for it, no matter how much you think you’ve practiced or prepared, it’s never easy. But I will say one of the things that I do before I get into those moments, and you typically know when those moments are coming: You’ve said something that challenges other people’s beliefs or commitments. We have an issue on the table that’s causing disagreement in some way. And so, you kind of know what’s bubbling up.

The first thing for me is to be prepared. So, I want to know that I know where I’m getting my data when I’m saying things that I believe are factual. And not only do I have to have the data, I need to have those sources ready. I was in a community of people who really wanted to know why and where, and how about most everything. So be prepared is the first thing, know your sources, expect the tough questions.

I actually had somebody, I said, ask me some questions that you would think will come my way. And people would ask me questions and I’d think, wow, you think they’re going to ask that? And lo and behold, I would get some of those questions. But it was great because I had already prepared my mind to hear it, whether I had prepared an answer or not. I had prepared my mind not to be shocked in that moment or caught off guard.

And then the second thing I’ll tell you, there are several things, but the next thing I would tell you is to listen honestly, and with humility. It’s really hard to do in those moments, to listen honestly because you’ve made a decision or you’ve made a statement where you’ve committed to something, you’ve made a decision, and you’re sharing that with people. And so you already have a bias about which way you think things should go, but to listen honestly to people, and hear that there may be other perspectives or other ideas, or you may not have considered the impact on as broad a group as will happen, that’s really important to listen and to have them see you and really be aware that you are listening and that you’re not so overly confident that you wouldn’t consider feedback and criticism in that way.

And then, as I said earlier, focusing on what was said as opposed to how it makes me feel. And that’s something that I grew up with. My dad was one of those people who actually said that there were times when he would say something and I’d hear it much more critically than what he intended it to be, but if I just looked at the words, if I just listened to the words, I could turn down my feeling meter a little bit and say, okay, it’s not as sensitive as I’m making it. I just need to get over that first emotional hump. So, listening to what was said is really critical.

And then the last thing I would tell you that I do in those moments is I literally say to myself, rise above your circumstances. Rise above your circumstances. These things are what they are. You may not be able to change anything about what is happening in this moment, but I have the power to react in a way that is representative of me, of my beliefs, of my values, and puts my best foot forward. Almost every day though, in the life of a president, you’re having to remind yourself of those things. But in those moments, it’s especially important.

AMY BERNSTEIN: The part about hearing what was actually said makes a lot of sense to me when people are asking why are you making those cuts? Does it play in at all when someone is questioning your competence?

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: It’s more challenging in those moments. When I heard that particular student ask me that question, I really had to remember, we are in an environment that is designed for people to be challenged with new ideas, with ideals that we don’t agree with. I mean, if you can’t have a protest on a college campus, where the heck can you? And so, I really didn’t want to squelch the opportunity that these students had to learn how to express their displeasure, how to share information, how to receive information, how to challenge somebody. It’s okay to challenge someone in authority.

My part of this was making sure I participated in this event, and that meant answering their questions. I didn’t feel that it would be helpful to avoid a question no matter whether it was about me or about what was going on in the moment. But I knew that my answer to that question would set the stage for questions that came later. So it was important for me to say, yes, I’m confident, and then to look to the next person who had a question. If I had stayed in that moment with that student or given them a cross look or made a face, that would’ve been the new story, and that’s not what we were there for.

You know, in this day of social media being the immediate news scoop—I mean, everybody’s walking around with a video camera, and those things can be shared with thousands of people instantaneously, right? I think what that has created for us is it’s removed an essential part of our response and conversational negotiating. And that is the pause. Somebody hears information and immediately shares it on the internet. They have an opportunity to stop, to think about it, to process it a little bit, to ask questions. And when we’re put on the spot in those moments, we have to create that pause in order to let our minds catch up and our emotions tune down. And I really feel like that’s what we’re having to do much more quickly. So, in that moment when I was in my office with the students, I had to say, turn down the emotions, breathe, and respond.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I mean, one way to do that I have found is to say, “That’s a really interesting question. Give me a second to think about that.” Even though what’s going through my mind is, Oh my God, get me out of here! [Laughter]

PATTI: [Laughter] Yeah. Yeah.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: I really find so much of commonality in what Patti is talking about with other experiences I’ve had with criticism. Now, when someone makes an ad hominem attack on who I am as a woman, as a person of color or whatever it is, for me, I’ve had to really categorize that as bullying. They had their own feelings about who I was, and that’s coming out and it has very little to do with me.

Now, I’ve also been criticized for the work I’ve done around talking around equity and inclusion; and Patti, in those moments, I think of the moments I’m sure you had to go through where you are ultra-prepared, you’ve checked in with your community, and I loved what you said about asking those questions because I remember when I wrote my first book around gender bias in the workplace, it was really helpful to actually have people in my community even ask me questions: Don’t you think that if the gender pay gap was real, every organization would just hire women because it would be so much cheaper to do that? So, to be able to have people ask me those questions really prepared me for when I got on stage and when I was going to face that criticism or criticism of my arguments. And in those moments it was easier to sort of separate out that this is a criticism of the argument rather than me personally. So, having a community around you to really catch you and bolster you in these moments is super important too.

And so Amy, I’m really curious, are there other stories or other situations where you’ve faced the fire, and how you dealt with it?

AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I haven’t been in the situation either of you has been in, never anything close. There was a time when I was a new manager where a junior member of a very large team I oversaw walked into my office as I was working and sat down in front of my desk and said something like, “A bunch of us wanted to give you a piece of feedback.” And I have to admit, the moment I heard feedback, I thought, oh God, it’s the F word. I don’t want feedback. But what I said was, “Okay, what’s the feedback?” And the feedback was that people didn’t like that I always seemed to be multitasking and never paying attention to them when they needed me to pay attention to them. Now, as it happened, as I was receiving this piece of feedback, I was answering email.

So, as I’m hearing this feedback, which is criticism, my first response was definitely fight or flight, just, I could feel my heart racing. I could feel my anger rising, and I kind of just wanted to walk out of my own office and shut the door behind me. But I was able to take a breath and say, “You know what, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. You’re not the first person who’s pointed this out to me. Shame on me for not correcting this behavior.”

And I mean, it took guts for her, for this junior member of my team to walk into her new boss’s boss’s office and to deliver this message. I hated thinking that that’s what my management sort of boiled down to for so many people. And in the end, I had to just own that, you know what, this is entirely an unforced error on my part. So thereafter, whenever anyone walked into my office, I shut my laptop, partly to say I’m listening to you, partly to keep my eye from wandering to the screen. I had to kind of tame myself that way.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: So, you know what I love about that story though, Amy, and thank you for sharing it because I feel like I’ve been there as well as a manager, and I’ve received some of that similar feedback. And what I didn’t hear that I appreciate was an apology in what you said to that person, that you responded and you accepted the criticism and you accepted the possibility that it was legitimate, that it was real, that it was not just their perception, that it was actually happening. And if it’s constructive criticism, they’re not looking for an apology, they’re looking for change, and you gave it to them.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: And the other part of what I heard, which I think is really important for anyone listening, especially around criticism and feedback, is if you’re hearing it from multiple sources, then pay attention. And sometimes I’m asked to advise on if one person out of the blue says this thing and you’re completely caught off guard, versus if you’re hearing echoes of this criticism or this feedback from various people, then it’s time to pay attention.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I want to come back to something that you were talking about, Patti. You walked into a situation as a university president where you had to cut the budget and you took responsibility for the decisions you made. How much did you talk about responsibility in that moment, and where did you draw the line for what you were responsible for and what you were not responsible for? You, for example, were not responsible for the budget situation. You were responsible for the decisions you made about the cuts, right?

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: That’s correct. Although if you ask some of the people who complained, they would’ve said, You were the CFO before you were the president. Doesn’t the CFO address these kinds of things? Doesn’t the CFO guide some of these decisions? And I knew that I had a CFO that I had just placed. So if I were to try and protect myself in that moment and lay it at the foot of the CFO, I would be selling my CFO up the river. So it was really important that the community understand in a university the buck stops with the president. No matter what happens anywhere else in the organization, I may not have done it directly myself, but I have created a system, or I have allowed a system to perpetuate, or I have hired people into that system that have made those decisions, and there’s no escaping it.

There’s zero escape when you are at the top. So I took responsibility for everything. I didn’t talk about responsibility in those words, but I did say when I was questioned about that, that as a CFO, I advised the president, but in the end, the president makes the decisions, and that’s where we are today. And that’s what I would remind them: Here I am, I now the president, and no matter what I’m advised, no matter who all is involved in this, the decision rests with me. So that was important for me to say out loud so that my team could continue to function with the confidence that I had placed them there for a purpose, and that what they did was important, that I was going to cover them. I was going to be the front man, so to speak, for the efforts that we all took on together that were important to the university. I wasn’t going to put them on stage to say, defend the budget issue. I might ask them to shed some light on some facts that I may not have known, but in the end it was with me.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Right. Well, I think we can all agree that finger pointing is a bad look, but I’m also wondering if it’s possible to take too much responsibility and how you know when you’ve crossed that line. Any thoughts on that?

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: Yeah. It’s so hard, and I don’t know if anyone has figured it out, but I’ve definitely seen women leaders come under fire for not showing enough empathy and not being warm and fuzzy and not shedding tears or not behaving in a way that, do you even care enough, and are you really even taking responsibility? Are you even accountable? And I think it’s important for all leaders in any position of power to be able to show vulnerability and show that these were difficult decisions. And indeed, I think for especially women, we’re held to a really different standard. So if women feel like we need to take more responsibility than we should, it comes from a place of having always been both conditioned but also rewarded and punished for taking on a larger burden than we probably need to.

AMY BERNSTEIN: How does that play out when the criticism leads to pressure to walk back a decision?

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: Yeah, I think so much of Dr. Amy Edmondson’s work around both psychological safety and intelligent failures, which I think is very relevant in these contexts because you do see that there are people who are allowed to fail intelligently. So you make a decision, you come under a lot of fire, and then you say, okay, I’ve actually thought about it. And so when in those situations if you do need to walk back or change a decision again, you get seen as a person who’s indecisive. Another challenge that women unfortunately deal with, but again, if you look at work from Dr. Therese Huston on how women make decisions and how women take risks, you realize that a lot of the criticism around that is gender bias as well. Women actually make great decisions, and we do take calculated risk really well. But again, a lot of the narratives about our decision making and our risk taking abilities unfortunately impede the facts.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Great points Ruchika, and I would add to those that anecdotally, I think that women spend more time trying to build and support or gain support for an idea before they take it out and launch that decision. And so I just have not witnessed that enough in some male counterparts that they get out there and really want to hear what other people say, what do you believe? They don’t test the idea as much as they throw it out and you kind of like you react, and then we decide and then we go. But anecdotally speaking, I would say when it comes to walking back a decision that women in my experience are more cautious about building support before they get to the decision.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: I’m so glad you said that because again, I think a lot of the existing leadership advice, this sort of be unflappable as a leader, like never show any emotion, never question a decision. You don’t really need to build consensus because leaders make hard decisions. That’s really not only bad advice, but it’s especially harmful for, again, leaders who are the first or the few or the only. So, I think that there’s a lot here that needs to change. And again, I’m really glad we’re having this nuanced discussion about that.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And sometimes you do need to walk back at decisions. You learned something you didn’t know that you should have known, and you have to take responsibility for that. But walking back a decision isn’t weak leadership in and of itself.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: No. It actually shows that you listen, it shows that you can be persuaded that as facts change and reality changes you can adapt to that as well, that you have to be an agile decision maker to know that at any moment the factors can change and that decision may no longer be sound.

AMY BERNSTEIN: This has been great. Ruchika, I always love talking with you.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: Thank you. Me too.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And Patti, what a joy to meet you.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Yes.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Thank you for doing this.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: Oh, thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to meet both of you. I really appreciate it. I’ve learned from both of you today, so thank you.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Terrific.

RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: Me too. Me too. Thank you all so much, truly.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s it for this fourth season of The Essentials, which means there are three other seasons of the series that you can listen to if you haven’t yet. Scroll through the feed and you’ll see episodes on giving feedback, managing stress, retaining talent, and being productive, plus many more skills.

Hear Patti in our Season 9 episode “Ever Consider Joining a Board?” and Ruchika in our Season 2 episode— and this is a real throwback—“Let’s Do Less Dead-End Work.”

Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates. Robin Moore composed this theme music.

I’m Amy Bernstein, and you can get in touch with me as well as with Amy G by emailing womenatwork@hbr.org.



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