Criticism–used well, this powerful leadership tool can promote positive change and strengthen relationships in business and life. Is it possible to use criticism at work without breeding resentment?
Dr. Deborah Bright, best-selling author and business coach, joins Family Wealth Alliance CEO Tom Livergood for a free webinar and fireside chat about the highly misunderstood topic of using criticism positively in the workplace.
Dr. Bright offers valuable techniques from her most recent book, rated by getAbstract as one of this year’s top 5 business books! She pulls tips from her book The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change to help us:
- Understand the essential role of criticism in the workplace
- Overcome common mistakes made when giving criticism
- Gain insights on handling difficult work-related situations
Register now for this free 1-hour webinar on September 14th, 2:00PM EDT. Turbocharge your workplace and career by learning to strengthen relationships and enhance performance with criticism!
Note: Dr. Bright’s 30-minute fireside chat will follow Bob Legan, of Whitnell & Company, discussing unique issues and planning opportunities with family owned or closely held businesses.
No matter how perfectly we try to do and say things, none of us are exempt from criticism. It’s an aspect of life we need to learn to understand and develop an expertise in handling. Someone who knew something about dealing with criticism was Eleanor Roosevelt. Although widely admired in later years, during her tenure as the longest-serving First Lady in United States history (1933-1945) she was often a lightning rod of criticism for her outspoken views.
In a column entitled “How to Take Criticism” for Ladies Home Journal in November 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt had this to say:
“I think it is salutary to read criticisms, even unkind and untrue ones. I do when they happen to come my way in the natural course of events. I do not seek them out, but they certainly tend to keep one from being overconfident or getting what is commonly known as the ‘swelled head,’ but all of us must be wary not to have our confidence in ourselves completely destroyed, or we will be unable to do anything. Some criticisms I read and forget. Some remain with me and have been very valuable because I know they were kindly meant and honest and I admired and believed in the integrity of the people who expressed their convictions which were opposed to mine.”
Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to have the true measure of criticism. She recognized that criticism was necessary for personal growth and that it helped to keep egos from getting too big. She also knew the difference between helpful criticism – the type of criticism “kindly meant and honest” and destructive criticism – which she referred to elsewhere as “valueless” and that “anyone with common sense soon becomes completely indifferent to…” Finally, she was aware of the inherent dangers of taking criticism too much to heart and suffering a loss of self-confidence.
While we cannot avoid criticism, as Eleanor Roosevelt’s column above illustrates, we can learn how to face criticism and become adept at dealing with it.
We’ve been looking at some of the common mistakes receivers make during a criticism exchange. It’s important to remember that during an exchange, the real control belongs to the receiver. Invariably, receivers of criticism tend to get into trouble when they fail to exercise that control. Using that control effectively is a skill.
Here are some additional ways that receivers can go wrong and get off track:
- Be Nice Receivers: These receivers tend to focus more on “how” the criticism is being delivered rather than on “what” is being said. As such, they are easily thrown off and tune out if the giver’s tone of voice, choice of words, volume of speech, or body language are not to their liking. These receivers are likely to miss some valuable insights from the giver – or the “what” – especially if that giver is unskilled or crude in their delivery.
- Innocent Until Proven Guilty Receivers: These receivers fail to admit their mistakes by blaming others or circumstances beyond their control. Admitting your mistakes sends a message to others that you are approachable and honest with yourself as well as with others. Avoiding the “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” attitude goes a long way in building trust and respect. In the long run, others will forget the mistake you made, but they will remember how you handled it.
- Take It to Heart Receivers: These receivers have the tendency to personalize criticism before being sure it was meant to be personal. When this happens, self-confidence levels can really take a hit. Rather than try to avoid criticism in the workplace or worry about its sting, recognize that criticism is a given and learn how to benefit as the receiver. Learning to view criticism as an opportunity to do things better in order to achieve specific goals is a good way to de-personalize the criticism. So too is holding onto the perspective that criticism you receive at work is frequently related to your role and is not directed at you personally.
- I’m a Victim Receivers: These receivers allow themselves to be victimized by givers who don’t know what they want. When this happens, receivers feel they have been dealt with unfairly, or victimized, because they thought they delivered exactly what the boss requested. To avoid feeling victimized, it’s important to utilize your control as the receiver. One way to do this is by coming up with your own solutions and then passing them by the giver. You may have to go through several rounds before you’re finished and the giver is pleased. But remember, each time you are criticized during the process, you are getting closer to what the giver ultimately wants.
For both givers and receivers of criticism, what you say, how you say it, when you say it and how you take it are all skills that require thought before action. In future blogs, we will look at learning and refining some of these skills so you can communicate more effectively with others and engage in productive, candid conversations.
Just as giving helpful criticism is a skill, being an effective receiver also requires skill. All of this takes patience, practice, and the ability to think practically.
Becoming a skilled receiver starts with understanding that in a criticism exchange the real control of the outcome belongs with the receiver. After all, it is the receiver who decides whether a criticism is valid or not, and whether they are going to act on the information. It’s also the receiver who decides if what’s being communicated is a criticism!
However, benefiting as the receiver of criticism goes beyond simply knowing that you are in control. It also requires knowing how to put that control to use even if you are interacting with an unskilled giver – and there are plenty of them out there.
Let’s explore where many receivers go wrong by looking at some typical receivers:
- I’m Being Attacked Receivers: These receivers instantly become defensive, fire off questions, and challenge givers in order to protect themselves. They overlook the fact that most givers have been poorly trained in giving criticism. They also fail to realize that making givers uncomfortable is likely to bring out the worst in them. More importantly, these receivers fail to recognize that in the end, they run the risk of not obtaining what could be very valuable information.
- Argumentative Receivers: These receivers fail to listen and view what’s being said as information. Rather, they tend to listen in an argumentative or judgmental way, which automatically creates a right/wrong, agree/disagree, or win/lose condition. Putting a lot of emphasis on weighing whether you agree or disagree with the criticism before taking the time to fully hear and consider what is being said can spark a defensive response – which is not a good way to promote a productive exchange.
- Quick Responder Receivers: These receivers fail to stop, think, and investigate what’s being said before they react. Like Argumentative Receivers, they can listen to argue and judge and are ready with a quick response to defend themselves. As the receiver, it’s vital to use the control that is inherently yours by considering the intent behind the criticism and inspecting whether the criticism is accurate.
- Instant Fix–It Receivers: These receivers make the frequent mistake of trying to remedy the criticism right away by jumping to conclusions and doing what they believe needs to be done. They take matters into their own hands without first finding out what the desired action is – from the giver’s perspective. When these receivers are unsuccessful after making several attempts, frustration and disappointment follow, while the original issue remains unresolved.
We’ll continue to look at some common receiver mistakes in my next blog.
There will be times in your career, when you encounter the criticizer who exaggerates everything—especially mistakes. For example: “I can’t believe this project is such a wreck. If I were to present this to my boss, I’d be the laughingstock of the division. You’re supposed to be my right-hand person—how could you turn in such an awful project and have the nerve to tell me it’s complete?” When the criticism explodes in your face, it’s essential to inspect what is really being said and who is saying it. It’s too early to reject the criticism. Your more immediate concern is to try to uncover some specifics. Take the time to view the giver objectively and examine what’s behind the criticism.
Chances are great that givers who exaggerate do so frequently. Having this insight makes it easier to accept the situation and focus on what’s really being said instead of taking a defensive posture. While defensiveness might be a natural response to being “blasted,” it doesn’t permit the receiver to focus on the criticism for what it is. Perhaps what is behind the criticism and what is making the boss so upset is the receiver’s lack of attention to detail and concern for quality work. Listen to understand, not to judge. Instinct may tell the receiver that the best response is to say nothing at all and to simply wait for an appropriate time to question for specifics. At a later time, when emotions have cooled down, the giver may be more approachable for clarifying specifics.
Another response might be: “I can understand your being upset. I, too, dislike it when work comes in and it’s of a poor quality. It looks as if people don’t take pride in what they do. But I do. Can you tell me exactly what it is you don’t like?”
Agreeing with the giver takes the edge off the criticism and skillfully gets the giver to frame the criticism in more specific terms. It also serves as a catalyst to start discussing corrective action.
- Don’t be thrown by a giver’s manner of delivery—givers think they are right. Otherwise, why would they be approaching you? Remember, however, that they only “think” they’re right. It’s not necessarily true.
- Keep an open mind. You can reject the criticism at any point.
- The receiver colors what’s being said.
- The ability to accept criticism varies, depending on who is delivering the criticism.
- If the giver is attempting to deliver instructive or quality criticism, it is the receiver’s responsibility to make the giver feel comfortable.
- The giver is just as uncomfortable in delivering the criticism as the receiver is in getting it.
- Avoid personalizing criticism; instead, look at quality criticism as a resource for achieving your goals.
- In most instances, reacting defensively or becoming argumentative is ineffective; this kind of behavior precludes any meaningful discussion.
- Receiving criticism is uncomfortable because the giver is pointing out something negative or expressing some form of disapproval, and criticism implies that you will need to make a change.
- As the receiver, you need to look beyond the words to the intent of the criticism.
By keeping these insights in mind, you will be able to more effectively keep your emotions in check, stay focused on sorting out the intent behind the criticism, and keep the criticism in the proper perspective. Doing all of this positions you to benefit from what is being communicated when on the receiving end of criticism!
Please visit: www.drbright.com
Avoid responding defensively and keep your emotions in check
Taking control as the receiver means that if you typically get defensive when criticism is delivered, you may find it helpful to say nothing. When you’ve had a chance to think about the situation you can also go back to the giver and calmly discuss things further. Again, it is helpful- especially where criticism is involved- to avoid letting your emotions rule.
If you do not exert any control over your emotions when being criticized, you will more than likely say something that you will regret later. Learning how to accept criticism as information without becoming defensive is a very important communication skill.
Here’s an all too familiar situation where avoiding the tendency of speaking first proved to be beneficial.
Amber has spend several hours working on a project over the weekend for her boss, Sandra. When meeting with Sandra on Monday, Amber feels very prepared and excited to discuss the project. Unexpectedly, after presenting the information, Sandra says, “I think you need to do some more work… I don’t think we are able to make a decision based on what you are telling me”. Amber begins to feel her face turn red as her stress level rises. Rather than express her feelings of frustration, Amber takes a deep breath, says nothing, and thinks to herself, “this is only information… even though I did spend a lot of time on this, it is not about me, or my life… it is a project that needs more work”.
More than likely, if Amber said what she was thinking at that moment, she would have regretted it later. The consequences could have been detrimental to her career and/or her relationship with her boss. If after the criticism exchange Amber feels as if she needs to discuss anything further with her boss, she can set up a meeting at a later time. After all, unbeknownst to many people, it’s the receiver who is in control! Amber can always go back to her boss and clear the air.