Let me guess, you don’t like people criticizing you? It doesn’t matter whether it’s your boss, colleagues, or friends, criticisms hurt. The fact is that other people see your flaws better, so learning how to accept criticism is vital if you want to improve at work.
If you're like many of us, you don't know how to accept criticism—even constructive criticism. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to take constructive criticism well and use it to improve yourself.
Constructive Criticism vs Destructive Criticism
What is constructive criticism anyway? What qualifies as constructive, and is therefore worth paying attention to? The difference lies in the content and delivery of the feedback.
Although both types of criticism can hurt your confidence because of the way they challenge your skills or character, destructive criticisms are mostly personal attacks. Sometimes they're deliberate, other times they're just a result of a lack of tact. Whatever the cause, you’ll know that it’s destructive criticism if it only points out your flaws. Constructive criticism includes suggestions on how you can improve.
The Problem With Employee Reviews & Typical Corporate Feedback
Performance reviews are supposed to be a good opportunity to hear what your manager thinks about your work. Historically speaking, research published at Cambridge University Press suggests that it’s more of a paper-pushing ritual mixed in with awkward conversations where both parties are afraid to speak their mind. Many managers rate their employee as either “average” or “above average” to keep the status quo. They do this to:
- Prevent them from getting demotivated
- Keep top-performers from getting complacent
- Evade potentially awkward questions from employees who might ask what they did to deserve such low ratings.
Employees are as much to blame as the system. Even in the face of valid and constructive criticism from a legitimate source (i.e. your manager), employees use different strategies to deflect blame, such as:
- Criticizing the source or someone else so their flaws look less awful in comparison
- Deflecting the weight or value of the criticism by playing up their strengths (e.g. “It doesn’t matter that I’m sometimes rude to customers because I sell more than my other teammates”)
- Discrediting the source of criticism
- Arguing about the critic’s judgment
But there’s a catch to evading negative feedback like this, writes Robert Nash, Aston University Lecturer and Psychologist, “Failing to reach our goals makes us feel bad.”
So since failure will make you feel bad too, isn’t it better to just face the criticism if it gets you one step closer to your professional goals?
How to Take Constructive Criticism Professionally
1. Take a Step Back From Your First Reaction
Don’t jump at the chance to defend yourself as soon as the person criticizing you stops to draw breath. That just makes you look defensive and unable to handle negative feedback. Giving in to your anger or need to justify yourself also prevents you from taking criticism objectively, so just take a deep breath and follow the other steps below.
Besides, whoever is criticizing you will sense this and as a result, hesitate to continue with what they’re telling you. You might have saved yourself a few seconds of pain, but you also missed out on an opportunity to improve.
2. Be Wary of Facial Expression and Body Language
Try not to roll your eyes, cross your arms, or frown when criticized. Yes, your office is a professional environment, but that doesn’t stop your manager and colleagues from picking up on emotional cues. Negative facial expressions and body language suggest that you’re not interested in what you’re hearing or that you want to end the conversation. Neither are great ideas if you want to hear what others really thought of you.
3. Consider the Source
Criticism from a manager you don’t like could still be legitimate or helpful in the same way that feedback from trusted colleagues could be disingenuous. Always consider the source of the criticism and their motives.
4. Don't Take It as an Insult
Don’t take it personally. Constructive criticisms are just someone else’s observation of your work and skills in a professional setting—no one is saying you’re a bad person. If they said something to that effect that doesn’t qualify as constructive criticism anymore, so feel free to just ignore it.
But as long as the feedback is about your work, such as the quality of your output or the way you accomplish it, you should take it in good faith that the person’s intention is to help you improve. Accept it graciously.
Try not to cry no matter how painful the criticism is because there’s no going back from that. You’ll feel embarrassed to face that person again, and you might get labeled as “too emotional.” When that happens, there’s a good chance no one in your office will ever be 100% honest about your work again.
5. Figure Out Why You Got Defensive
Now that you’re calm, it’s time to examine why you got defensive or upset in the first place.
What do you think triggered your initial reaction? For some people, it’s pride, for others, it’s just the embarrassment of getting called out. What’s your reason?
If you don’t know what your trigger is, dig deep until you find out. Because your answer to that question is the key to avoiding all the negative emotions that cloud your judgment and by extension delay your growth.
Awareness is crucial in controlling negative emotions. So, once you know what your trigger is you can use it the next time your emotions overrule your logic when someone criticizes you. Tell yourself that whatever you’re feeling is just a gut reaction because of your (pride, embarrassment, fear of rejection, etc.).
6. Listen for Understanding
After you get your emotions in check, it’s time to take control of your racing thoughts. What’s the first thing on your mind when someone criticizes you? It’s probably one of these things:
- That’s not what I did/said.
- Easy for them to say, they doesn’t know how hard it is to…
- Actually, that’s not what you told me to do so…
- Nobody told me about that, so it’s not my fault.
- You should have…
- I did this because…
- This is the right way to do it because…
You may not be outwardly defending yourself, but you’re not listening closely either. You’re just listening to formulate a reply that trumps your critic’s statement. To avoid this, try to listen to what the person is telling you word for word. Memorize what they say so you can repeat it back to them in your own words. This shifts your brain’s full attention to the other person with the added bonus of confirming that you understand the feedback from the other person’s point-of-view. The following tutorial can help you improve you and your boss communication skills at work:
7. Realize Giving Feedback is Awkward and Not Easy for the Other Person
A lot of managers and certainly the majority of your colleagues aren’t trained to give feedback properly. Even if they were, that doesn’t make it any easier on their part. It sounds weird, but it’s easier to rant than it is to give valid work-related criticism that includes a suggestion for improvement.
Consider the following examples, which do you think is easier to say to someone who made a mistake?
“You’re a lousy video editor”
“The last video you edited looks like a rip-off of our main competitor. Next time, please find more sources of inspiration so your work doesn’t look like a copycat.”
In the heat of the moment, it’s easier to say the first statement. Even when your manager is calm, the prospect of you reacting negatively is enough to make them feel uncomfortable. It’s just that they expect you to remain professional. They also hope you know that they’re required to give you feedback because it’s also their job that’s on the line.
Think where your boss is coming from next time you feel upset about taking criticism. You’re not perfect and neither are they, but the fact that they took time to point out your mistake shows that they care about your career.
How to Use Constructive Criticism to Improve Yourself
Earlier you learned the process of keeping your composure while receiving constructive criticism. Now it’s time learn how to use that feedback for your professional growth. After all, what’s the point of accepting people’s painful words if it won’t benefit you?
1. Stop Viewing Mistakes as Failures
Don’t think of your mistakes as failures, as that might be one reason you get defensive when someone points a mistake out out. Making a mistake means you’re human and that you still have lots to learn about your job. Each mistake is just a lesson to be learned, not a sign that you’re a total failure.
Remember that everyone starts as a beginner and the same people criticizing you got their fair share of painful feedback too. So, just accept that there’s a learning curve in everything, whatever your position is on the corporate ladder.
2. Ask for Specifics
Don’t accept blame for anything you don’t fully understand. Who knows, you might be the one getting criticized, but it may not be your fault at all. While that’s not always the case, it’s never a bad idea to clarify the specifics of the complaint.
Ask exactly what it is you did wrong, what makes it wrong, and how they prefer you to do it next time. You can also ask if this is an isolated incident, or if you’ve committed the same mistake before to see if it’s pattern behavior or just a one-time mishap.
3. Get a Second Opinion
Constructive criticism isn’t limited to the quality or accuracy of your work. Sometimes, it’s about the way you do your job or how you relate to others at the office. In both cases, the criticism will be subjective. For instance, some people might appreciate your honesty, but other people might think you’re rude or tactless. In this situation, it’s best to ask for a second opinion or even multiple opinions.
Seek out the opinion of someone who can give an unbiased opinion of you. If you've got time, try asking at least five people so you can get a better consensus of what others think.
4. Define Your Plan
By this time you know whether the criticism has merit and what you can do to improve yourself. Your next step is to create a plan to address the issue so that you can learn from it and not get told off for the same reason in the future.
Creating a plan to address your areas for improvement doesn’t have to be complicated. Follow the steps below:
- What went wrong? (Mistake)
- Why did it happen in the first place? (Trigger)
- Find a way to avoid the trigger.
- Identify what you should've done instead and do it. (Correct action)
5. Follow Through
Send a thank-you email to the person gave you who feedback explaining your plan to avoid the same mistake in the future. Include a meeting request to discuss your improvement if your manager was the one who gave you feedback. This may sound like too much to you, but this is the best way to show that you’re committed to improving yourself.
Learn When to Let Go
Unless it’s a specific work procedure, a company policy, or a matter of common-sense good behavior, you’re not obligated to take all the advice you receive. Remember, constructive criticisms are other people’s observations plus their suggestions on how you can improve. The catch is those suggestions are based on their experience, and there are times when their experience is different from yours. Sometimes, their suggestions might be inapplicable to you, so the best you can do is acknowledge that you've got a chance to improve, then find your own way of doing it.
Don’t let the burdens of previous failures weigh you down. Beating yourself up with all the things that you could’ve done better before is a waste of time and energy. You’re better off channeling that energy into learning new things and working on other goals.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in May of 2018. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.