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Taking Criticism

Taking Criticism

April 23, 2024
Howard Cohen

A Dialogue

Board chair (James): Good morning, Crystal. Thank you for meeting with me today. As you know, I like to meet individually with board members to get a sense of how things are going. I hope you are enjoying your experience on the board.

Board member (Crystal): Thank you for this opportunity, James. I want to say first that I do admire the work of the organization. and I’m committed to its values. Unfortunately, however, my experience on the board is not an especially pleasant one.

James: I’m sorry to hear that, Crystal. Please tell me more.

Crystal: As you know James, the board is dominated by men. And I use the word “dominated” consciously. I find it very difficult to work my way into discussion and when I do, I feel that my ideas are not taken seriously. Some of the men on the board just ignore me; others seem downright hostile. At the last meeting, when I was trying to make a point about the budget-making process, a committee member cut me off. Then a different member stepped in and proceeded to explain my point to the group. I felt I was being “mansplained.”

James: I can see how that would be very upsetting, Crystal.

Crystal:  Frankly, James, I was disappointed that you did not step in and challenge them; you should be protecting my right to contribute to the discussions. After all, you’re the chair. I feel you are very passive in the face of some of the more outspoken and aggressive board members. I feel I have the right to expect more from you.

James: This is difficult for me to hear, Crystal, but I’m grateful for your willingness to speak frankly. Can we talk about what I can do to help make this situation better and your committee experience more positive?

Crystal: You know, James, it shouldn’t be my responsibility to fix this problem.

James: I agree, Crystal, but the more I understand how you experience our meetings, the more likely I will be able to address this problem successfully. From your perspective, what might I do differently to improve your experience on the board?

Crystal: For one thing, I think you need to talk off-line to those board members about their behavior. If it continues in the meetings, you need to call them out on the spot.

I also think you need to do this in a way that doesn’t make me look like a hyper-sensitive complaining female. Getting the old boys to tolerate my “sensitivity” would be just as demeaning.

They need straight talk, and you need to enforce appropriate meeting behavior.

I’m not the problem here. And it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the other members agree that you need to lead with a firmer hand.

James: This is very helpful to me, Crystal. I want to take some time to think about what you have said and how I should respond.

Let me assure you that I’m not minimizing or dismissing your concerns here. I’m trying to be thoughtful and deliberate. I want to think carefully about how to address the issue if it comes up again.

Crystal: Don’t take too long to think about this, James. It’s not rocket science, and I’m not the first person who has ever had this experience. In all likelihood the question is not “if” it comes up again, but “when.”

James: I hear you clearly, Crystal. I’ll address this matter within a week and circle back to you to let you know where things stand.

Chrystal: Thank you, James. I’ll look forward to hearing from you before next Friday.


  • Create a comfortable context to hear criticism.
  • Listen carefully; avoid being defensive or argumentative.
  • Do not cut the critic off or engage in countercriticism.
  • Don’t offer solutions in the meeting. Take time to think about your response.
  • Don’t drop this ball. Be sure to follow through on the schedule you set.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.