Can you handle criticism?

The case of the BBC

Criticism is always welcome.

You have undoubtedly heard this sentence often enough. You are open to criticism because it addresses important problem areas. Innovation is driven forward. Conflicts are eliminated, and proactivity in addressing certain aspects prevents escalation at a later stage.

So far, so theoretical. The reality is often different. People who address criticism are often perceived negatively. They are quickly seen as perpetual complainers, problem-causers, or difficult employees.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Why do so many managers not want an open culture of criticism, even though the opposite is often claimed?


Until recently, the BBC, one of the most renowned public television institutions, decided to remove Gary Lineker as a commentator on the sports programme Match Of The Day. This step was taken because Lineker’s comments sharply criticised the British (Conservative) government and its anti-immigration statements. Lineker used a private social media profile to make his point of view unambiguously clear. Other moderators were not sanctioned for political statements they made in the past. The affair is extraordinary because Tim Davie, Director General of the BBC, justified the actions taken with an alleged violation of the BBC’s impartiality. Davie himself, however, is a former Conservative Party candidate and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party in Hammersmith and Fulham. This aspect does not seem to be a breach of non-partisanship for Davie.

Protests and boycotts against the BBC followed the decision that Lineker should no longer be allowed to commentate on sports programmes on BBC because of private political remarks.


There are six levels of morality in decision-making.

Level 1: Avoid punishment.

Level 2: Represent self-interest.

Stage 3: Good person attitude (or at least trying to be a good person).

Stage 4: Understanding of laws and social order.

Level 5: Social contracts

Level 6: Principles

(For a more detailed explanation (of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development) with further commentary, see the current podcast — link below).

The BBC is attempting to take a moral position here, censoring a person’s personal statements to remove those from the public domain in a field that is not even roughly in context — from politics to sports and vice versa. This attempt at censorship received ubiquitous criticism.

If you now say that you are more open to criticism, think how you would react if some people from your organisation were to criticise you publicly. A person who is doing vocational training or an internship with you? Staff or team leaders? The (senior) management or perhaps even executives? Senior executives? Member from the Board of directors or even supervisory boards? How open are you to (public) criticism now?

The BBC tried to take a moral position, and its leadership is failing at every level.

Handling criticism

Of course, regulating criticism internally rather than publicly is desirable and necessary. However, when all internal means have been exhausted, people will put aspects in the public domain if they are in the public interest. Censorship of freedom of opinion and speech does not rely on leaders’ arbitrary power. If you act otherwise, you are acting morally underdeveloped, which must question your general suitability for leadership. Appropriate consequences against leaders who practice censorship are inevitable.

Proactively provide opportunities, places, and forums for people to criticise. Not all people who criticise you or the organisation will do so objectively or purposefully, but dealing with these moments also is part of leadership. Where do you stand now on the issue of internal, external, private and public criticism?

Your decision.

More on the topic of criticism and the ability to criticise in this week’s podcast: Apple Podcast / Spotify.

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Niels Brabandt
Leadership Magazine by Niels Brabandt / NB Networks

Niels Brabandt is in business since 1998. Helping managers to become better leaders by mastering the concept of Sustainable Leadership. Based in Spain & London.