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Criticism: Taking the Hit

Getting negative feedback never feels good, but you can learn to use it to your own advantage. Besides, it's usually a sign that you're moving up.

In the privacy of our hearts, there are only two possible ways to receive criticism: badly or worse. But in the public arena of the workplace, we learn to ice over those injured feelings with a smile. And in the space between that private wince and the public smile there is something to be gained. It's called professional growth—if you can get yourself there.

Start by making sure that you are, indeed, able to pull off the public smile, no matter what the provocation. This smile does not mean responding with a goofy grin to a boss' open critique of your marketing flop. Nor does public smile suggest that you should look happy when your cold-call record or your expense figures are unfairly challenged. All criticism hurts and much of it is unjustified. On the face of it, that's nothing to smile about.

Maintaining a public smile means adhering strictly to Rule Number One when facing criticism, namely, sit back and take it in. Save your defense—your explanation, your clarification, your justification, even your legitimate outrage—for later, when it might do you some good. As you'll see, your best first defense against criticism is no defense at all.

Public smile also means that when the negative feedback is formally presented, you at least appear to listen. (Actual listening is even better.) The single best technique for communicating listening is to mirror back what your manager said by rephrasing the criticism. Mirroring under the fire of critical assault requires calm focus, but it works like magic to make the boss stop browbeating you.

For example, The Boss: "Your presentations are too detailed. Just give me the elevator version and focus on the big business drivers."

You: "You want me to do a better job of making brief presentations with a big-picture focus."

If you can take listening one step further to validate what you've heard, say so. You: "I see what you mean. I do get long-winded and caught up in the weeds." Most of your boss' irritation with you will vanish when you let him know you heard what he said and you know what he means.

The fact is, though, you may hear what is said but not get it at all. The critique may seem distorted, misinformed or just mean. If so, then sit back and put on the public smile anyway. Remember, mirroring is not necessarily agreeing with the criticism. It's just not actively disagreeing at this moment, when an argument with your supervisor will only make him more invested in proving his point. People tend to hang on to a negative opinion forever if they don't feel heard, but once they do, they feel relieved and back off.

Your supervisor will likely let go of the anger, frustration or any other feelings that might be fueling his criticism once he feels you've received the information. You, though, are now at risk of hanging on to your hurt, anger or anxiety way too long. The real difficulty with making use of criticism is that most of us divert our attention from what was said and get stuck on how the message was delivered or on our relationship with the person who said it. Those thoughts and feelings are not of much use to us, but they are certainly riveting.

This manager is someone who has judged us or hurt us or someone we'd hoped to impress whom we've disappointed. We worry about the relationship, feel embarrassed, disliked or outraged. We focus on the impact of the negative observation—will it affect the next promotion, the annual bonus or even the job itself? We stew over a boss' obvious biases, compete with office favorites who receive free passes for the very flaws for which we have been chastised. And we suffer way out of proportion to the boss' negative observation because on some level it is as if we have disappointed Dad or let down Mom, and we are as self-loathing or infuriated as the day we brought home the bad report card.

Some emotional focus on the boss who delivered a hurtful assessment or on the real job impact of a critical review is, of course, unavoidable. In the case of serious disagreement, you will need to follow whatever corporate grievance procedures apply to your situation. But most of the time your task is something more internal. You need to stop focusing on the messenger, stop fretting over the job threat and take a clear-eyed look at yourself.

The alchemy that turns the bitter dross of negative feedback into the gold of professional development is purely from within. That's why it's so important to move beyond the question of what your boss thinks and on to what you think and how you can use the negative information to your own advantage. And you can; smart professionals do. But first they have to get past the hurt, angry feelings.

Give yourself a maximum of 72 hours to sulk. You can complain to your mate, think mean thoughts about your manager (but never express them aloud) or do whatever else you do when your feelings are hurt. Then start thinking more rationally. To use the negative feedback productively, ask yourself three key questions:

What part of this is true?

Have I ever heard this before?

What would I have to give up if I changed?

The answers won't necessarily come easily, but your thinking will be directed toward professional development, and that's what's in this self-searching process for you.

Make your move past hurt and anger easier by remembering criticism's secret compliment: It comes most readily when you are moving up. Stay in one safe job and the chances are that if they haven't fired you, they like what you do. As you move out and up, your role shifts, and you matter more. The more you matter, the more managers will try to polish your assets and file your rough edges. If you learn to take the buffing with a smile and thoughtful effort, over time you will shine.

Give as Good as You Get

It's not only difficult to get negative feedback, nobody likes to give it either (well, a few insecure sadists aside). This is the case across the spectrum of power. We are universally reluctant to trigger the hurt feelings, angry defenses or counter attacks that criticism so frequently arouses.

Of course, you know you need to avoid the hallway rants and sweeping generalizations that make negative feedback more humiliating and less useful. Beyond these basics, here are some guidelines for this tricky communication:

  1. Pair every negative with a positive: "You are an amazing problem solver, but you aren't following up with the paperwork."
  2. Give feedback on observable behavior only, don't speculate on internal attitudes.
  3. Be excruciatingly specific about both the problem and the expected solution: "When you do X, it creates problem Y. Next time, try this instead... "
  4. Extend yourself to maintain the relationship. After criticism, people withdraw. Counter that by making friendly conversation.
  5. Remember, reward is the most powerful change agent. Go lightly over what's wrong and be heavy-handed with what's working or will work in the future.