How to handle criticism

We are all the recipients of criticism from time to time – and we may not enjoy the experience. But how we react speaks multitudes about our character.  When we receive criticism in the workplace, often politely referred to as “feedback,” most of us will react in one of the following ways: to push back, to ignore, or – if we are wise – to lean in.

When pride takes the driver’s seat, a person may try to push back, attempting to paint the criticism as simply misguided. Similarly, if the feedback has brought up feelings of embarrassment or disappointment, a person may choose to ignore it altogether.  My advice is to take Option #3: listen carefully, ask questions and end with a big “thank you”. After all, you’ve just been given a useful tool on your path to performance improvement.

Now, I recognize that accepting feedback – especially when it is less than glowing – is easier said than done. But I find it helpful to remember that the person providing the feedback probably feels just as uncomfortable. They have likely wrestled with the topic for a while, and are now showing their own brand of courage by talking to you about a difficult subject. Many times, the practice of giving feedback evolves into an uncomfortable conversation – but it does not have to be this way. As the recipient, I encourage you to sit back and try to learn. Feedback creates professional opportunity.

If you are receiving negative feedback, breathe deeply and turn your focus to listening carefully.  Get a pencil and paper if you can, and take notes on what you are hearing. These will be helpful later when you go back for review. If, in the middle of receiving criticism, you realize that you have screwed up, try to take a moment to sincerely apologize. Facing up to things that have gone wrong and taking responsibility for them goes a long way toward earning the respect of your teammates. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Feedback cannot help you if you do not understand it!

Before reacting to criticism of any kind, take a minute to analyze the intentions of your critic. In my experience, most feedback in the workplace is given in the spirit of improving performance or relationships. The motives of your critic may be quite admirable. Still, no matter the source, it is up to you to use the feedback you’ve received to self-assess your performance. If the criticism is harsh or even nasty, carefully digest what you are hearing and use the information to help craft your future. Understanding how you are perceived in your current workplace can help you formulate a plan for your future conduct.

If you really want to learn about your effectiveness in the workplace, you might try creating a regular practice of soliciting feedback from those around you.  Don’t be shy — just ask “how do think I am doing today?  And please, be honest.” You might become aware of small issues that, when nipped in the bud, will never become big ones. You might also get an unexpected pat-on-the-back! This is your opportunity to learn, so take your colleagues’ words seriously.

I have seen a business leader’s workplace image transformed just by changing their approach to speaking with others – a task they learned to prioritize through peer feedback. A former HR executive I worked with often said: “Feedback is the breakfast of champions!” And it is – when it is used in the right way.

published Nashville Business Journal

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  1. One of the best articles that I have read in a long time – such good advice.

    In seeing criticism as an opportunity to improve – this article summarises it brilliantly.

    Really enjoyed reading this one.

    Thanks Joe.

  2. Great article. Makes sense. I found the most useful step is asking associates “how am I doing”.

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