Learning to respond to criticism

Experts: It's OK to ask for 24 hours to process tough feedback

Editor's note: This story was updated on March 7, 2018.

Responding well to criticism at work isn't just about appearances; it also encourages the free flow of communication and creativity, Sue Shellenbarger writes in the Wall Street Journal.

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Developping the ability to temper an emotional response to criticism—be it anger, sadness, denial, or blame—can be difficult, especially "if you're genuinely surprised and you're getting that flood of adrenaline and panic," says Douglas Stone, co-author of Thanks for the Feedback.

Moreover, employees may not get a lot of practice in dealing with negative criticism. According to a 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce, 94% of managers prefer positive feedback over criticism.

Responding to criticism: No tears, no anger

According to Stone, employees react poorly to criticism because of three reasons:

  • The employee dislikes the person giving the feedback;
  • The criticism seems unfair or unfounded; and
  • The feedback disrupts the employee's sense of security and identity.

To avoid distorting constructive criticism into a personal critique, Stone recommends that employees write down "What is this feedback about, and what is it not about?" He says, "the goal is to get the feedback back into the right-sized box" as a critique of specific parts of work performance.

But if emotions bubble up quickly, employees should ask for 24 hours to think before responding, says Brad Karsh, president of training company JB Training Solutions. "Say, 'thank you very much for the feedback. What I'd like to do is think about it,'" Karsh says.

Employees must practice even more restraint if criticism is doled out in front of other colleagues. "Don't create a scene. Just nod and keep a smile," says Karsh, adding employees should ask their manager to in the future "have those discussions one-on-one."

Regardless of how the criticism is delivered, Dana Brownlee—founder of training company Professionalism Matters—advises employees to try and keep control of their emotions. "If you end up in a puddle of tears, that's going to be the memorable moment," says Brownlee.

How to learn from criticism

In order to learn from criticism, employees should ask their managers "what" questions, such as "What evidence did you see?" instead of "why" questions such as "Why are you saying that?" The "why" questions tend to create resentment.

Most people will realize after some reflection that criticism is not totally unfounded, says Karsh. He recommends that employees ask themselves "What is the nugget that I can pull out of this?"

Meanwhile, employers should give employees feedback on their performance frequently, says Catalina Andrade, a benefits manager at Tris3ct. Surveys have shown that 77% of employers conduct performance reviews only once per year, but Andrade says employees will become less defensive and more comfortable with criticism if they receive regular feedback (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 6/17).

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Topics

Workforce, Nursing

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