I think most people can agree that being criticized is rarely a barrel of fun. Whether the comments come from your boss, your peer or even your employee, they can inflict discomfort. The trick to turning criticism into something useful is to find the core nugget of truth embedded in the message, and then using it to improve your performance and grow from the experience.
No matter what the intention of the person delivering the news (good, bad or indifferent), there might still be something in the message that is useful once you’ve distanced yourself from your initial emotional response.
Throughout my time as a leadership coach, I’ve learned there are a few ways you can make the experience more valuable:
Remember, criticism is not an attack.
Unless you have a thick skin or a lot of practice hearing direct feedback, the first step to taking criticism is probably the most challenging. Your initial reaction might to fight back because of the confrontation or to flee the scene — don’t do either. In a professional situation, neither reaction is going to win you any points. Practice squashing that automatic response by thinking of a phrase or two that will buy you a few seconds to settle down.
Having a stock comment in your pocket, such as, “That’s an interesting viewpoint,” or, “I’ve never thought of it that way,” can lessen the initial emotional impact, especially if the comment came out of the blue and caught you by surprise.
Ask for clarification.
The feedback might be poorly worded or poorly presented. For example, the person delivering it might be using over-generalizations such as, “You always,” “You never,” “I hate it when you,” etc. The feedback might also be too vague to be useful.
This is why it’s critical to be objective and get to the heart of what the other person is trying to convey. Questions along the lines of, “Can you give me a specific example of what you’re talking about?” will help to narrow the focus.
According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report (registration required), “Currently, most managers are not providing the type of feedback necessary to drive better performance. Only 23% of employees strongly agree their manager provides meaningful feedback to them.” So, if you want to get the most value out of the feedback you do get, help the messenger deliver useful information by asking detailed questions.
While you’re asking specific questions, really listen to the answers. Disassociate yourself emotionally, and don’t react. Think of this as a fact-finding mission. When you have enough information, summarize and reiterate what you’ve been told. Make sure you’re both on the same page. It also wouldn’t hurt to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Your boss or peer might be just as uncomfortable bringing up the subject as you are hearing about it.
The criticism should not be about you, so don’t make it about you. It should pertain to your role, the execution of your duties or your job performance. The minute you make it personal, it becomes a confrontation of who’s right and who’s wrong, which doesn’t accomplish anything. It can even be about your behavior, but remember: That still doesn’t make it about you.
Stick with the facts.
If the feedback contains several irrelevant details, let them slide. They aren’t pertinent. If necessary, it’s OK to politely point this out to the person giving the feedback. The goal is to get both of you to agree what the factual, germane point of the criticism is. Stay on topic. Don’t let the discussion slide off into a litany of grievances.
Avoid making excuses.
This is not the proper time or place to try to shift the blame or rationalize your behavior. This is a very good time to simply say, “Thank you for your feedback.” You need time to give the subject matter some thought.
Tell the person you appreciate their time and that, in turn, you’ll need time to think about what they’ve said. If you continue to try to sidestep or justify, you’ll only succeed in looking weak — not the impression you want to leave management or anyone with.
Follow up with the messenger.
Once you’ve had time to think through the feedback and understand how it’s relevant in relation to your professional growth, make an effort to follow up. Ask for a few minutes of time from the person who offered the comment in the first place. Explain that you’ve been thinking about the issue, and share any revelations that have come to light as to how you could improve.
It also wouldn’t hurt to ask for input or any advice this person might have for you in this regard. Perhaps, they’ve been through the same situation and are only trying to share their experience to save you the time and effort it took for them to improve. In fact, this could be the start of a beneficial mentoring relationship.
Remember that criticism is only a tool meant to help you grow. There’s no need to criticize the things you already do well. According to a 2018 study by Randstad, 69% of those surveyed said they would have a greater sense of satisfaction if employers “better utilized their skills and abilities.” Constructive criticism is a way to hone those skills and abilities.
Feedback can be a valuable learning opportunity. When it’s given and taken in a responsible and professional manner, everyone benefits.