Criticism Hurts Because it’s Often True, says Yahoo’s CEO

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer has weathered a heap of flack while heading up the Internet portal since becoming CEO in 2012. Her advice to other CEOs: be prepared to accept that criticism.

Some swipes directed at Mayer were clearly unjustified, focusing on her gender and role as a mother, while others centered on whether she could have done a better job turning the already-fading company around.

In a frank admission, Mayer accepts that some objections against her management decisions could have been true. In fact, she says, a lot of them probably were—to an extent.

Mayer, speaking recently at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, recalled receiving advice from a friend at Google, who suggested the main reason criticism hurts so much is because a certain portion is always true. “The question is: is it 1% true, or is it 75% true or is it 100% true,” she said.

“THE PRESS IS THE PRESS. THERE ARE SOME TIMES THEY’RE SMART AND THEY GET IT RIGHT, BUT THEY DONT’ HAVE EVEN CLOSE TO HALF THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE BEING IN THE COMPANY.”

To help her decide, the last place Mayer turns to is the press. “I don’t read it,” she said. “And that might sound tone deaf, but I feel like if you read it it changes who you are and how you think about things.”

For example, Mayer said there’s a risk that CEOs who read their latest idea was brilliant could be tempted to continue backing an idea that’s actually bad. Conversely, she said, leaders told how bad they’re doing may feel encouraged to give up on something great.

“The press is the press—there are some times they’re smart and they get it right, but they don’t have even close to half the information you have being in the company,” Mayer said.

However, she doesn’t entirely ignore the media. Consuming it is a job for her PR team, who summarize big issues and points for her to digest. She’d also much rather hear criticism from someone she knows more closely, including her husband. “If you’re going to get criticism it’s always better coming from someone who loves you, or someone you work with or have a relationship with.”

The actor Bradley Cooper, Mayer recalled, recently told a talk show that the best way to feel bad about yourself is to read about yourself online. “It works if you’re an actor, it works if you’re a business leader, it works if you’re a high school student.”

“The point is: you just can’t let that shape who you are. You either have to have guidelines for how you’re going to absorb it, like me, or you have to have really thick skin. I tend to have a little bit of both. But you have to have a way of cutting through all that noise to what’s valid criticism.

The full interview can be seen here.

Ross Kelly :Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.