It's not all bad: learning from criticism at work

How to accept criticism at work—and learn from it

These days most companies hold appraisals regularly so that they can assess their staff and then let them know what they are doing well and what is not going as expected. Although these meetings are supposed to be constructive, sometimes those who are being evaluated can end up feeling defensive in the face of criticism. You are not alone if you identify with this feeling, or if you think that you just don’t know how to handle negative feedback at work. Receiving criticism at work is not pleasant for anyone. So we asked an expert in psychology and career coaching for advice on how to take criticism well and use it to improve your performance.


Why is it so difficult to accept criticism at work?

The closer the relationship you have with someone, the greater the impact their words have. This is why, in principle, any criticism you receive at work should affect you less than that from family or friends. Work is such an important part of everyone’s lives these days, however, that you may find it as hard to accept criticism from your boss or colleague as you would from a close friend or relative.

For Elisa Sánchez, a psychologist and expert career coach, there are several factors that affect how you handle such a situation:

  • Your level of self-esteem. “When you have healthy self-esteem, you value and respect yourself. You are able to understand what others are saying to you without feeling attacked or responding aggressively. On the other hand, when you have low self-esteem, criticism can throw you off and you tend to react badly,” she said.
  • Who it is that is criticising you. According to the psychologist, it is harder to take criticism from someone you admire than from a colleague you don’t hold in high regard. The words of someone you respect will have a stronger negative impact.
  • Confusion between “what you do” and “who you are”.“When we make the mistake of identifying our work with our ‘self’, any small criticism can shake the foundations of our identity,” she said.
  • When the focus is on results and not on the process. Those who see “success” only in terms of the final results achieved can be less receptive to criticism. That’s because, if a mistake or error is mentioned, they may interpret it as disapproval of their entire body of work, rather than just a detail or a small part of it.
  • A tendency towards perfectionism. In this case, any criticism will be taken as a sign of failure and can prompt anger, anxiety or even paralysis.

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What to do: Differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism

Feedback can be constructive or destructive. So both the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it need to show a high degree of personal and organisational maturity, according to Sánchez. Criticism is constructive, or pertinent, when it is correct in both structure and content. This means that it is presented in an assertive and respectful way, and the recipient can see that there is something that can be improved. You understand how to improve and how to show your willingness to change.

On the other hand, destructive criticism is not intended to show you how to improve nor even how to learn from your mistakes. There are three types of destructive criticism, according to Sánchez:

  • Criticism with relevant content, but delivered badly. This is when the criticism is appropriate, but is not given in a respectful way. If you think the criticism is relevant but that it has been handled badly, you should make it clear that you want to improve, but that you do not agree with the way the information was communicated to you, to avoid the same thing happening again.
  • Criticism that is not relevant. This type of criticism is not based on anything. It occurs when the person making the criticism offers incorrect information or arguments. Or it may be that the recipient does not have the authority or the control needed to make the improvements. In this case, you should mention the issue without losing your cool.
  • Vague and imprecise assessments. These are criticisms that do not refer to specific attitudes or actions, such as “You always do things your way” or “You don’t listen”. In these cases, it is a good idea to ask for clarification and specifics. You can ask your appraiser what they are referring to or to give you an example. That way, you can try to narrow down the criticism so that you can address it appropriately.

Generally, constructive criticism comes from people you trust and respect, and it happens in a private setting. It is important that this is so since, if it is done in public the recipient may feel exposed or vulnerable, or that their self-esteem is affected. This doesn’t mean that a stranger can’t give constructive criticism, but feedback should always be based on mutual respect and trust. It is also important to pay attention to the tone and body language of the person who is conducting the appraisal. Be wary of those who adopt a bullying or aggressive attitude.

Tips to get the most out of a review

When you receive constructive criticism at work, Sánchez advises listening to it without interrupting. Then clarify what your appraiser is telling you by repeating it in your own words. Accept the advice and take notes so that you can reflect on it later. To do this, put the following tips into practice:

1. Contextualise the criticism

Remember that the criticism is of your work, not of you. So try not to feel like you are being attacked personally. Take the time to get some perspective. Reflect on the feedback you’ve received and how it can help you to improve your performance. Remember that any criticism can be transformed into something positive that can work in your favour.

2. Work on your self-esteem

Any criticism will be more difficult to accept if your self-confidence is low. If this is the case for you, try making a list of your achievements in recent months to help you to keep in mind what you are doing well. If you’ve identified areas that you need to improve, working on them will help you to gain confidence.

3. Say goodbye to perfectionism

Don’t let high standards stop you from moving forward: there is no one way to do things right. If you define yourself as a perfectionist, changing your point of view will help you to understand that work is a process of continuous improvement. You can continue to learn as long as you accept that criticism will be part of that.

4. Take criticism as a challenge

When you receive constructive criticism, the best thing you can do is to take it as an invitation to improve. Maintaining constructive contact with your manager and your colleagues is essential if you are to advance in your career. So you need to know how to accept criticism, to put it in perspective and to learn from it.

Now that you know how to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive criticism, and you have the necessary tools to deal with it, it’s time to take stock and learn how to use that feedback to your advantage. The next time your manager wants to talk to you, just grab a pen and paper, and get ready to learn. Forget about behaving like a victim and don’t get defensive. It could be a great opportunity to take a qualitative leap in your career.

Translated by Sunita Maharaj-Landaeta

Photo: WTTJ

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