The dictionary definition of a mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor,” or “leader, tutor or coach.” The definition of a critic sounds similar, “a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis.” The big difference, of course, is that a mentor looks ahead to help you, while a critic looks backward to tell you what you did wrong.
We can all learn from both of these approaches, but in my view the mentor is far more valuable than a critic. A mentor’s goal is to help you build your strengths to avoid problems and pitfalls, while a critic feels compelled to point out your weaknesses.
The job of entrepreneur is tough enough without a critic on your team, second-guessing your every move. Here are some tips on how to recognize whether a partner, consultant, or employee is a mentor or a critic:
- Earns your absolute trust. One of the key characteristics of a successful mentor relationship is trust. You should be easily convinced by actions and attitude that the mentor candidate has your best interests at heart.
- Mutual respect. You and your mentor must have total respect for each other and show professional courtesy toward each other. A critic is more inclined to offer advice through cynical witticisms, whether they consider you a peer, boss, or employee.
- Able to communicate directly. Your mentor must be able to clearly communicate his/her expectations and boundaries consistently, whether face-to-face or via email. Critics often prefer to deliver their message to your friends and peers.
- Similar ethics. You and your mentor should adhere to the same ethical rules, as defined by your business and government community. You will be uncomfortable with critics whose ethical positions are not clear, or vary widely from yours.
- Long-term relationship potential. Mentors play important roles in the careers of most successful entrepreneurs. The relationships with good current mentors likely will continue and often grow into strong friendships. Most people cannot tolerate a long-term relationship with their critic.
But try as you might to avoid them, we all have to deal with critics and the criticism they offer. Everyone reacts differently to criticism. Here are some tips on how to avoid any extreme reactions to criticism, like confrontations and angry debates:
- Don’t take it personally. One reason people get angry at being criticized is that they take the criticism as a personal attack, rather than a comment on performance. Or they think the person criticizing them is trying to ridicule them. This is not always true.
- Take suggestions from anyone. Sometimes people get angry when they are criticized by others who are younger or older, or not familiar with the subject. That’s a bad move. Commit yourself to always looking only at the content and not who is offering it.
- Don’t reply immediately. Don’t push to reply to a criticism in progress. Allow the point to be made completely, then think a moment before you start any response. First find an agreement portion, ending with points you do not agree on.
- Smile and don’t get angry. It always helps to smile when you are being criticized. This will help you create a non-confrontational debate and shows that you are confident in what you think.
Most critics I know think they are mentors, but I’ve never known a good mentor who is easily mistaken for a critic. If you listen to yourself, you can tell the difference. Are you asking forward-looking questions, or making negative assessments about past events? It’s hard to be a leader if you are always looking backward.