Taking criticism is a skill. You learn to do it well by doing it over and over again.
If you reach adulthood without ever having heard a disparaging word about your work performance, for example, you might feel annihilated the first time you receive criticism.
Sue Shellenbarger offers good suggestions for how to take criticism on the job, but she begins her Wall Street Journal article with the ways that people take criticism badly. She then recommends tactics that can be used to recover from intemperate responses to criticism.
And yet, I was most struck by this paragraph:
Many employees don't get much practice fielding negative feedback, managers say. It is out of vogue, for one thing: Some 94% of human-resources managers favor positive feedback, saying it has a bigger impact on employees' performance than criticism, according to a 2013 survey of 803 employers by the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce. Performance reviews are infrequent, with 77% of employers conducting them only once a year.
Shellenbarger is suggesting that self-esteemism has taken over the minds of business executives. Surely, there is merit in the notion that people should be praised for their accomplishments, but allowing someone to believe that he never makes mistakes can only breed arrogance. And it also produces people who have extremely thin skin.
The thinner the skin the greater the pain.
It’s not just about not being able to take criticism. Many employees cannot deal with any suggestion that their performance is less than optimal. Even if a review is not couched as criticism, some people tend to see it as a threat, not as a chance to improve.
In fact, a belief in perfection is the enemy of improvement. If you believe that you always get it right there is no room for improvement, no reason to strive to do a better job.
You can tell if you are thin-skinned or inexperienced in the art of accepting criticism by looking at Shellenbarger’s chart.
There are four wrong ways to receive criticism. They are: getting angry, crying, denying and blaming others. Those who respond in any of these ways and do not know enough not to express them will undermine themselves.
If, perchance you have undergone a form of psychotherapy that it has taught you to feel your authentic feelings and the express them, you can see that it has prepared you to be a dysfunctional employee.
Of course, it is altogether possible that you will feel angry, will feel sad, will deny it all or will blame others. If so, Shellenbarger recommends that you keep it to yourself. DO NOT EXPRESS SUCH FEELINGS.
If you do fail to control yourself, you should beat a hasty retreat and think through a better response. In all cases, you should, as the chart suggests, request another meeting, one where you will be able to participate as a rational actor, not as an emotional basket case.
As for setting the context, you should understand that your boss is trying to help you to do better. It is in his interest that you improve your performance. It is in your best interest. Now, why are you mad or sad about a less than stellar review?
It might be that you had not known of your faults, flaws and foibles before they were pointed out. It’s not just that your performance was sub par but that you did not know it. Perhaps, there are other areas of your life where you are misjudging yourself. Perhaps other people are also patronizing you by allowing you to believe you are great when you are not. The suspicion redoubles your sense of having failed.
It’s always nice to have a witty come-back to criticism, but that takes time and experience.
Shellenbarger offers one example:
Mr. Stone recalls a meeting years ago where a client tossed down on the table a report he and his colleague and co-author Sheila Heen had written and yelled, "This is a piece of s---!" Mr. Stone says his heart sank: "I'm thinking, 'This meeting is not going well.' "
But Ms. Heen had a comeback: "When you say s---, could you be more specific? What do you mean?" The questions touched off a useful two-hour discussion, Mr. Stone says. Ms. Heen confirms the account.
Heen’s comeback is priceless, but this incident also shows that people who offer criticism are often tactless and inconsiderate. In some cases executives are no more adept at offering criticism than staff members are at receiving it.
If executives have never learned how to offer suggestions that point toward improvement without sounding dismissive and threatening—to say nothing of obscene—then they too need some training in management skills.
When your boss is dismissive you are likely to feel that you have been dismissed. Sometimes people who react badly to criticism are reacting well to criticism that has been badly expressed.
It is possible to find fault with someone’s work without finding fault with him as a person. It is possible to encourage someone to improve without letting him feel that he is about to be terminated. Demoralizing your staff does not motivate them to do better.
As executive who explains that he wants his employee to succeed and that he wants the employee to have a bright future with the company is more likely to see his observations received constructively.
Perhaps executives need some practice in how to word criticism. Saying that a report is “shit” is not likely to motivate someone to write a better report.