You are going to receive criticism. It’s going to happen at work, school…church. It’s a normal part of how people interact with each other. While we generally have a sense of how to interact with criticism in our personal lives. Being criticized at work can be much more nuanced and complicated.
For starters, criticism is tied up in judgment and disapproval based on the perception of fault. It often comes from a place of frustration and is not usually a measured, well-thought-out response to an event. On top of that, since criticism is based on perception, we may not always be aligned with the criticism that we receive. What then?
Criticisms at work can feel like they have a direct impact on our livelihood. Accepting it can feel like we are agreeing that we are poor performers. Which could impact compensation, promotability and even social standing within an organization.
On the other hand, rejecting every criticism that comes our way could indicate that we are not open to learning and improvement. That perceiving stubbornness or even arrogance could also be career-limiting. So, how can we successfully engage with criticism? Here are some points to consider.
Show curiosity about the criticism and seek to understand where it is coming from. Meeting frustration in kind is not a step towards resolution. Also, without understanding the criticism there’s no way to figure out how to address it. Or, even more importantly, whether or not it even needs to be addressed. While it may not seem that way at the time, try to look criticism as an opportunity. It’s a chance to either correct a wrong perception, provide a solution to a problem or demonstrate the ability to listen.
There can be pressure to take difficult conversations offline and resolve the conflict in private, but I don’t recommend doing so when you have been publicly criticized. Try to resolve the exchange in the same environment that it was made.
Try to understand where your critic is coming from. Sometimes it’s an incorrect perception. Sometimes it’s a mistake, and you’re not responsible for what happened. And, other times you are the guilty party. It’s important to empathize with the negative impact our actions can have on someone else whether or not we intended to do so.
It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens. Some colleagues target others under the veil of offering feedback who just want to take out their frustrations on others. These are often the “difficult people” in the office whom everyone seems to be aware of and mostly just try to avoid. Don’t allow yourself to be a target. Always respond in a measured and professional manner. However, don’t accept criticisms that are not your responsibility and always challenge the critic to offer actionable feedback.
Focus on an actionable takeaway from the criticism. Don’t let the critic off the hook with just venting their frustrations at your expense. A lot of criticisms boil down the what, “suck less, do better” - actually criticism I’ve gotten before. But, to make extract value from these interactions try to focus on the How and the Why.
Why is there an issue with the action (or lack of action) that caused the criticism?
How can the situation be prevented in the future?
Make sure there’s a clear and reasonable action to take away from the exchange.
Demonstrating an open approach to learning will serve you well with criticism. You will never know or understand everything possible in your role. Always approach criticism with a solution-oriented mindset. A problem has been raised, what can be done about it? Finally, don’t take it personally. Don’t try to be defined by perfection because you’d be setting yourself up for failure. Instead, invest in the notion that you can competently solve problems when they occur and reduce them from happening in the future.
Criticisms can’t be avoided and shouldn’t be. It’s a normal part of professional interaction and we should make every effort to learn and grow whenever we receive it. At the same time, be mindful and strategic about your responses. Reducing vagueness and ambiguity will allow you to identify the root causes and address the issues that they cause.