Friends, Critics, and Trolls

If you are a leader, you are going to attract critics. It is inevitable. In fact, if you aren’t attracting critics, you should be wondering why. Criticism is normal.Photo courtesy of ©, Image #650824

Photo courtesy of ©

Why? Because real leaders upset the status quo and make people uncomfortable. As Finley Peter Dunne once said about journalists, “Our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” The same is true of leaders. Unfortunately, this almost always meets with resistance.

But let’s be honest: criticism hurts. At least it does for me. I’ve been in the public spotlight since my first book, The Millennium Bug, hit the New York Times bestseller list over ten years ago. Writing three more books, becoming a CEO of a large publishing company, and launching a very public blog hasn’t helped.

Theoretically, I know this is just the price you pay. But emotionally, it kills me. It always knocks me off-kilter. You might think I would be past that. But I am not. I obsess about it, spending way more time thinking about it than I should. I wish this wasn’t true, but it is. (Just ask my wife!)

One of the things that has helped me in the past few years is to distinguish between three kinds of critics:

  1. True friends. Not all criticism is bad. God forbid that we should turn a deaf ear to everyone who disagrees with us. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Some people are in our lives to save us from ourselves. As a leader, the trick is to create an environment that is safe for dissension, so these people can speak up.
  2. Honest critics. Some people decide that they disagree with you and go public. They aren’t malicious. They aren’t out to destroy you. They simply disagree with you. That’s okay. We need to allow for a diversity of opinion. Besides, we might learn something from it. It enriches the conversation. We need to engage these people and refrain from making it personal. Not everyone has to agree with us.
  3. Unhealthy trolls. These people have an agenda. They are out to hurt you—or at least use you for their own ends. They want to lure you into a fight. I have had three this week. They taunt and mock you. They are unreasonable. If you engage them, they will only distract you and deplete your resources. The best thing you can do is ignore them. As someone once said, “resistance only makes them stronger.” You will never satisfy them. Just keep doing what you know you are called to do.

As a leader, you must learn to distinguish between these three. I personally assume that everyone is a friend or an honest critic until they prove other otherwise. I may be naive, but I would rather give people the benefit of the doubt than live a life of paranoia. What about you?

Questions: Do you have critics? How do you respond to them? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to self-hosted WordPress? Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Amy Crawford

    Wow! Thank you for your encouragement! Your words were salve for my injured heart. Just what I needed to read today. Like you, I logically understand that with leadership comes criticism, but ouch- it leaves a mark sometimes. More than anything else, I want God to use me to make a difference in this world, but following Him means giving up comfort and security. The benefits outweigh the risks though, so I will stay the course!

  • Paul Anthony Wallis

    Liz, You are quite right to point us to the need for love and compassion, but there is a reason that John the Baptist was willing to describe certain people as 'Vipers' and that Jesus was willing to identify someone as a 'Vixen'. Even the word 'troll' comes from myths which are often intended to teach people social wisdom as they grow. To be fair to Michael I think he was using the word in that kind of a way. If compassion is your only guide people with destructive agendas will suck you in to them. Sometimes we need to be wiser than that. I once worked in a chaplaincy which for years had been revolving around the needs of one very disturbed student. The chaplaincy staff shrank because the female chaplains felt so menaced by him. The chaplaincy centre had to be periodically closed to avoid his being alone with anyone in that facility. In the end, uncompassionate as it may sound, we had to take legal measures exclude him from the college campus. It is very important at times that we are both innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents – Just as Jesus taught.

    • MichaelSGray

      Excellent point Paul. Jesus himself used the term "vipers" (along with other descriptive language like "whitewashed tombs") when he spoke to the Pharisees in the temple. Is this a license to name-call? Certainly not, but it does illustrate that speaking explicitly, as opposed to only speaking in sugar-coated terms, can serve a purpose — clarity.

  • Roxane B. Salonen

    I can't imagine any conscientious person who is not affected in some way by the critics, but I have learned to sort through the different types, as you have. The trolls definitely need to be ignored, but I'm like you also in that I assume the best in people unless they prove otherwise. Then, it's time to turn away, because toxicity is poisonous, and there's no room for that within the healthy life of simply trying to follow a calling. Great post! Thanks.

  • Marc Millan

    Fantastic Leadership post. I have many of times found myself speaking out as a leader or have also see those around me uncomfortable with things that I have said or have wanted to do. It's part of leadership. I think the hidden part of all of this is integrity and character, when a leader has those things in order, just keep on walking and doing your thing, know that we all can learn something but it's part of the process.

  • Peter_P

    I am one of the trolls… to myself.

    I am my own worst critic.

    Of course, that is a terribly self-destructive way to live but one of the big problems with it though is that, whenever I receive criticism from anyone, the critic is simply agreeing with my own self-criticism.

    This makes it very hard for me not to take the criticism to heart and let it eat me up inside.

    Thank God I haven't had too much real criticism to date!

    Great post Michael, Thank you!

  • kyle watson

    I'm not at your level in society. So I don't know if this helps. But I would only respond to those not trying to pick a fight. At your level it may benefit them to fight in public. Controversy attracts the publicity they want. People are so rude and hateful in criticism today. I would ignore those types. Its not worth it.
    I have spent a lifetime around negative criticism about everything under the sun. Here is what I do to not let it bother me. It may be too simple and not helpful. I don't know. It works for me.

    I don't take myself too serious. Somehow this seems to help a great deal.
    I don't take it personal even if it is the intention. If I do they win.
    Life is too short and will pass you bye. Let them sweat it.
    To let criticism bother you. It only hurts you and your health.
    Jesus said don't worry be happy. Not that singer dude Bobby.
    Find a private place by yourself or with someone you trust and just get silly. Clean silly of course.
    Psalm 37:4 Delight in the Lord. Focus on that verse. That's all I got, man.

  • Pingback: Friends, Critics, and Trolls | Leading & Learning

  • Jonathan

    Excellent word, Michael. I'm going to send this one around.

  • 12hourhalfday

    What is the appropriate response for each type of critic?

  • HilMc

    Thanks for this. Very timely. Learning to let things go, when to be humble ~ and if they are right, acknowledge it.

    Hopefully my blood pressure will go back to normal.

  • Pingback: Dealing with critics « A Ruach Journey

  • Serena Woods

    I can really identify with this! I had to go through a period of not responding to any comments for a while because it was tilting my writing. I don’t get a ton of negativity, but when I do, it’s frustrating because I’ve done my homework. The positive comments affect me, too. I like to hear them, but don’t want to be in a position of writing to get them… I’m learning to balance interaction with a healthy element of detatchment.

    Thanks for RTing this post. :)


  • Jen

    Everyone has an agenda. Everyone has goals, hopes, dreams, desires. No one goes through life without wanting to gain something. Or even give something.

    To say that someone who wants to prove their point because they are passionate about their side of the issue is an unhealthy troll I find to be insulting. I am not your friend. I am not a troll. I am not out to hurt you. I am not acting in a malicious way. I do however disagree with you on many things. Mostly I disagree that you have my, or any writer's best interest at heart. I have the right to say so.

  • @jmarkarnold

    Excellent post…and one I needed to hear. Like you, I've faced critics and lately was falling into the trap of fighting with them. You are right: it is just best to ignor. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  • Pingback: I beg to differ « Teachings from the Trail Blog

  • Pingback: One way Jesus dealt with critics « Live Generously

  • Omar Hamada

    I had to come back and re-read this as my life has been awash with critics of late – and most seem to be those closest to me. It seems there are so many willing to criticize at the drop of a hat, yet there are so few who are willing to encourage. So many willing to tear down, so few eager to build. Why is that?

    Sometimes one can't help but think, "What if they're right? What if I really am no good?". Then you just have to pick up and move on regardless.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You should have her read The War of Art. It's a great book that will help her put this in context.

      • Omar Hamada

        Thanks Michael. Will check it out.

        Who said it was a "her"? :-) (Though that is one of several).

  • Glenn Sasscer

    As a writer, especially in Christian thrillers, I have many critics who disagree with every aspect of my writing, from the way I write to the genre (How can I be a Christian and write horror or thriller novels? How dare I?). I have constructive critics who are quite helpful, clueless critics who think they are helpful, and critics who fit your category of trolls. For the first two groups, I send a thankful reply and evaluate their criticism with an honest approach – even the clueless critics hit on something useful every now and then. As for the trolls, I adopt a position where they are welcome to their opinion and it is none on my business from that point forward. Why waste time defending yourself against someone who will never listen to you?

  • idelette

    Thank you for your transparency and wisdom. I've read this post earlier and thought is was great, but read it with fresh eyes again after this week. This is very helpful indeed. I so appreciate the way you lead.
    My recent post Do Women Not Hold up Half the Kingdom?

  • Pingback: Fusenews: Oh, Mickey What a Pity You Don’t Understand « A Fuse #8 Production

  • katdish

    I think you've pretty much covered it here. The "unhealthy trolls" as you call them often play both angles. They're either overly critical or overly complimentary. I'm actually more wary of the latter. It's not that I assume anyone that's nice to me wants something from me, I'm just cautious, and most folks really do turn out to genuinely nice.

  • @harback

    You would likely appreciate a related article by Theodore F. MacManus called "The Penalty of Leadership." It appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1915 as an advertisement for Cadillac Motor Car Company. Elvis Presley framed a copy to hang in his studio. The full text is here:

  • Chris Jeub

    I read this with my wife. “Gee,” she said. “You could’ve written this. You are just like this!” I’m learning the exact same thing. Great post, Mr Hyatt.

  • Pingback: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted « God Is My Constant

  • Pingback: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted « God Is My Constant

  • Pingback: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted « God Is My Constant

  • Pingback: Your Pastor Needs Friends…And It’s Not You « Steve's Luminosity

  • Pingback: 10: Cómo distinguir las diferentes clases de crítica – C. J. Mahaney | Descubriendo el Evangelio

  • Pingback: Got Trolls? | Joe Burnham is Restorying Life

  • Pingback: How to Love Trolls | Joe Burnham is Restorying Life

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    I just read the first bad review of my book, and besides my friends and fellow writers, this post has been a thoughtful balm. Helped me take a deep breath and stand proud behind my work. Thanks.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Good. I am so glad. I have to come back to this same post myself when I encounter a troll!

  • Dr Tim White

    Thanks Michael for admitting that criticism still hurts. I pastor, teach, and blog, so I get my share. Your three kinds of critics is helpful. 

  • Pingback: Keeping Up With Communicating « Daniel Bell