There are all kinds of criticism. Three main types are regular criticism, constructive criticism, and unproductive criticism. The first two types can be helpful to your professional growth and fairly easy to cope with. The last one can occasionally be hurtful, but can sometimes be useful if you learn how to extract the helpful information from it.
Most people value criticism given to them from people they trust and admire. It’s more of a challenge to have an open mind about criticism given to you from a manager, boss, or supervisor — mostly because we, as adults from alcoholic families, tend not to trust authority figures. Sure, we have good reason not to have trusted the original authority figure in our lives, but need we apply that to all authority figures? I don’t think so. Remember, everyone is human, has their strengths and weaknesses — including your manager. (If you dislike your manager, ask yourself if that attitude is in some way ‘protecting’ you from having to look at yourself more closely and make changes to your approach to work. It may well be that your attitude is keeping you from growth that you badly need.)
Let’s say that you are someone who, for whatever reason, does not always meet deadlines. If your supervisor were to talk to you about this, she might say (using regular criticism): You’re inconsistent with making deadlines.
If she were to refer to this issue using constructive criticism, she’d say, “I suggest you start to give yourself double the time you think you need to complete tasks, so that you can always get them done on time and meet deadlines,” or something like that.
The key difference between regular criticism and constructive criticism is that constructive criticism offers a solution.
If you’re supervisor said, “You never make deadlines and you’re making me look bad,” well, that would be the unproductive brand of criticism.
If your manager provides criticism in this fashion, you have to get your chisel and mallet out and tap, tap, tap until something useful falls out. So your manager says, “You’re terrible with deadlines.” You want to clobber him. You’re pissed. You hate that he doesn’t know how to deliver good feedback. You suspect him of putting it that way on purpose, to get you riled up. You wonder how he got to be a manager in the first place. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Shut that side of your mind off, and use your skills. Instead of defending yourself or shutting off, you say, “I’m terrible with deadlines? Why do you think so?” Or, “Which deadlines stand out most in your mind?” The key is: don’t react, extract more information. Once you get to the core of the issue, ask for constructive feedback. Say, “I want to turn that around, can you suggest how I can improve my rate of meeting deadlines?” Or, “Did you ever have trouble with deadlines, what worked for you?” If your manager can’t suggest a solution, go ask someone else on your team how they plan their time.
If it’s regular criticism that you’re receiving from on high, use a similar approach to turn that plain criticism into constructive criticism. Let’s say your supervisor says, “Your work performance is inconsistent – some days you’re “on,” but other days you’re aloof, locked up like a clam shell. Your coworkers have noticed, too.” First off, you’re definitely going to have an internal emotional reaction because you are hearing this for the first time. That’s OK. Take a breath. You might feel a bit defensive. Don’t let that part of you take over, because you’ll miss out on the lesson. Your best bet is to ask a question. Keep asking till your surprise and defensiveness ease up. You want to be in a mind frame in which you can listen and learn about yourself. Say, “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?” Or, “Can you think of a recent example of that so I can think about what might be going on with me?” Or, “Is it so bad that people actually don’t like working with me – can you describe how serious this is?” Once you get more information, go on to ask, “Can you suggest something I might do to turn this around?”
When it’s constructive criticism you’re receiving, be grateful. It’s not easy to hear that you’re not perfect. Sure. But, you’re not perfect! There will always be room for improvement. And don’t feel like you have to ‘perfect’ the thing that is being criticized. Just work on it – that’s plenty.
Now, I hope most of the criticism you receive at work is regular or constructive. I hope little of it is unproductive. If you work in a situation in which unproductive, negative criticism is given out like sticks of gum, there is probably a deeper, wider problem with the organization you work for. And if that’s your environment, why are you still there? You always have options.
LISTEN, REALLY LISTEN
With criticism, the key skill we need to learn is HOW to HEAR criticism — to hear it, digest it, and value it.
That’s not easy work, I know. But because it will help you grow in your job, it’s an essential skill to teach yourself. (It will help you in your personal life, too, since you likely have the same issues cropping up there as well.)
Giving good feedback and constructive criticism is a learned skill. Many people, even if they are your boss, aren’t as skilled at providing feedback on work performance as we’d hope they be. Our work culture doesn’t value mentoring they way it could (many organizations view mentoring as a wasteful use of time), so there are lots of un-trained, or simply inexperienced, managers out there. For this reason, be sure to give the person who’s delivering feedback to you the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume they’re an expert feedback-giver. Who knows what their own feedback-giving role models were!
Use questions, listening, and requesting suggestions for improvement as ways to make bad feedback good and good feedback even better. You’re worth it, no question about that.