Professional Development

Receiving criticism in the workplace

– part of the professional development series

LogoNo matter how experienced we are in business or how mindful we are during meaningful conversations within the workplace, whether you are an employer or employee, I’m pretty confident that we all could do with some additional help when receiving criticism.

The workplace is a hotbed of personalities, often thrown together without choice and somehow all of the different personalities and life histories are expected to get along.  But what happens when your performance is critiqued? when a work colleague finds fault, is confrontational of defensive?  And what are you going to do about it?

For many of us, confrontation within the workplace causes strong emotions and it’s often hard to be objective when you’ve been bailed up and criticised.  It’s important to remember that nobody is perfect and unless the person is extremely self-aware of the catalyst (what is really generating the feelings behind the criticism) and why they’re feeling that way, then the potential for criticism to be delivered in a way that is offensive, intimidating or even confrontational, is relatively high.

When it comes to dealing with the other person, and their criticism you have three choices:

  • You can take it on the chin, say nothing about the criticism and legitimately let it go
  • You can complain endlessly to friends and family but never really do anything about the problem
  • Or you can step up and confront the issue with honestly and in a professional manner.

As I see it, the person that ‘lets it go’ will, upon repeated experiences, quickly becomes the complainer, a position none of us really want to be in.   And with that in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of ways you might want to address this with the other person.

1.   When do you want to approach the subject with the other person?  Do you want to set up a meeting and talk about the overall pattern, or do you wait for something to happen again and then deal with the single instance? The second approach is more direct but it’s also riskier as the other person may well feel on the back foot invoking defensive, confrontal behaviour.  The first is more structured, both parties enter the conversation prepared to talk and if the other person usually holds the position of power, then this is definitely the better way of ensuring a positive outcome.

2.  It is important for you to define the other person’s actual behaviours that are causing you to feel criticised. It may be that you agree that you could have done something differently and/or better but it was the way that they said the words or the environment that they said it in that really bugged you.  Get specific about the behaviours and focus on them in the meeting rather than bring in other things that are just not helpful or relevant.  It’s very easy to make it personal, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable or angry so once again, be clear on the actual behaviour. When my children were growing up I found it extremely important to be clear when addressing an undesired action, that it was what they ‘did’ that was bad (the action)…not that ‘they’ were bad (the person)… see the distinction?  “It’s not that you told me I had done that wrong, it’s that you said it in a demeaning way in front of another colleague”. 

Don’t describe more than a couple of behaviours that you’d like to see change. Anything more will feel like you’re piling it on.  And don’t dump your grievances out all at once, address each one in turn so the other party doesn’t feel attacked and remains engaged.

3.  If the person that you have issues with is in a position of authority, you may want to ask for permission to hold a discussion where you’re giving feedback. (It’s not exactly in your job description.) To do so, make it safe by sharing common ground. “I wonder if we could talk about something that I think would help us work together better.”

4.  Now that you have gotten yourself this far, be very careful with the words that you use.  Remember the need to separate intentions from the outcome. This sounds something like this: “I’m don’t think you’re intending this, but on several occasions, it’s felt to me as if you’re critiquing me for simply following orders or doing my best to follow a policy. You suggested that my approach was aggressive/not client focused/not good use of company time [insert your situation here] when you didn’t actually give me the opportunity to explain”.  When you legitimately seek feedback such as “In your view, how could I/you have done that differently” or “next time, how would you rather I carry out that task”, it takes the heat right out of the situation and invites the other person to participate in finding a better solution.  More often than not, when you use this approach the other person can reflect on the way they handled the initial situation and you can move to a healthier discussion of what you’d prefer to see in the future.

If the stakes are high, your power base is low, and you want to broach the issue with the least amount of risk, start with you, not the other person. This tentative approach may seem a little ‘airy fairy’ for some but in remaining calm, demonstrating respect and mutually discussing the best solution, you have a strong chance of achieving the desired outcome for both of you.

Developing trust and respect within the relationship allows you to transition the more tricky elements, including exactly what the other person has said and done and how that made you feel. 

So, remember, it is important for you to be specific about what you want to address, choose you words carefully and play it out in your mind.  Pick your moment wisely, and of course…good luck!

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