Criticism and Stress

13 Jun

For many of us, criticism is the most dreaded form of communication. Rarely, do we enjoy giving criticism and we almost never enjoy receiving it. Why then, are we so resistant? Perhaps it’s because criticism has the potential to hurt others and devastate relationships. Simply put, dealing with criticism is stressful!

According to a survey of Northeast workers back in 2003 that was conducted as part of the Strategies for Enhancing Performance Study, a 7-year study involving over 320 participants who engaged in an experimental/control design, giving and receiving criticism each ranked among the ten most stressful situations in the workplace.

Let’s peel apart, like an onion, layer by layer, what makes the exchange of criticism so stressful. For starters, there are six stress-producing factors:

  • Criticism is rooted in negativity: Simply put, criticism, at its core, will never be positive – and was never intended to be. It’s that very negativity that produces stress. Who likes to hear something negative about themselves or what they have done?
  • Workplace criticism comes at unexpected times and triggers real or imagined consequences: While earlier research I conducted with Simmons Market Research Bureau found that workers do expect to be criticized by their boss, what is particularly stressful is not knowing what one has done or said that may be subjected to another person’s judgment.  Even more nagging is the worry involved in wondering if there will be any consequences associated with the criticism.
  • Criticism can destroy relationships and hurt feelings: It takes a long time to build trust and respect, but these feelings can easily be torn down by an inappropriate use of criticism. Often, the stress related to criticism comes when receivers aren’t sure whether the intent of the criticism is to help, hurt, or destroy their self-confidence.
  • Unlike praise, a criticism exchange can become nasty: Unlike a compliment, a poorly handled criticism exchange can turn nasty on the turn of a dime. Throw in fragile egos, hair-trigger emotional responses, and competing interests, and you can see why a criticism exchange that starts out with the best of intentions can quickly devolve into a swirling dance of bruised and battered feelings.
  • Embedded in the delivery of criticism is the perceived need to change: Criticism usually implies the need to change something about ourselves – our attitude, how we think, or the way we behave. Dealing with change in itself can be stress-producing, especially when the change isn’t to our liking. We like the prospect of growing and developing ourselves, but doing it is tough.
  • Poor delivery and a non-receptive receiver both play a role: The vast majority of us are poorly trained or lacking in the proper skills of giving and receiving criticism. This makes for an awkward situation where feelings can easily get hurt!

In my next blog I’ll take a longer look at the consequences of this lack of training in exchanging criticism by discussing some mistakes that givers of criticism commonly make.


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