How to Handle Criticism at Work

It doesn’t matter how you choose to live your life — whether you build a business or work a corporate job; have children or choose not to have children; travel the world or live in the same town all of your life; go to the gym five times a week or sit on the couch every night — whatever you do, someone will judge you for it. For one reason or another, someone will find a reason to project their insecurities, their negativity, and their fears onto you and your life, and you’ll have to deal with it. And when you face criticism at work, you need to learn to not only handle it, but also turn it to your advantage, or at the very least, grow and learn from the experience. 

It’s a natural reaction to get defensive when being criticised. However, it is important to fight that urge. Your critics might have something important to say, but you’ll never pick up on it if you’re too busy thinking about how to defend yourself.

Criticism takes many forms and has many purposes, most of which you can’t control. What you can control, however, is how you respond to it. Will you be cool and calm or will you, embarrassingly lose it, based on ego and shame?

Keeping it together in the face of unpleasant feedback is a mark of real professionalism. So, with that as your end goal, there are a few tactics to help you avoid embarrassing meltdowns, job-endangering rage fits or even just lingering (and potentially job-ruining) disappointment:

If at all possible, coolly and calmly excuse yourself from the presence of the person giving you feedback. Simply saying something like, ‘Thanks for your input. Will you excuse me for a moment?’, should work just fine. It can be very, very difficult to control your emotions in the face of harsh criticism — so don’t try. Just get yourself out of there as gracefully as you can.

If you’re in the middle of a meeting and can’t take a bathroom break, calm yourself down by mentally escaping and thinking about things that make you happy: your best friends, your puppy, your upcoming vacation – anything.

Dealing with criticism at work positively is an important life skill.

Once you’ve cooled down a bit, go back to talk to the person who gave you the criticism. Yes, this is the person you least want to see, but be the bigger person. Everyone’s communication style is different. What may be ‘criticism’ for you could just be ‘feedback’ for them. Schedule some private time with the person who gave you the criticism to ask questions about what they said. Let them know you’re just looking to best utilise their feedback, and ask things like, ‘Could you be more specific about…?’ or ‘I understood that you meant…. Did I get that right?’. You may discover you weren’t even being ‘criticised’ at all!

Sometimes, like it or not, criticism at work can be deliberately destructive. People can be mean, but you don’t have to lower yourself to their standards. If you can see that the person criticising you is being personal and hurtful rather than constructive, it is better to just let it slide. Don’t take it too seriously, or personally. However, it might be constructive to find out what the person has against you so you can figure out how to improve the situation.

Bear in mind, the wrong kinds of criticism to look out for are:

  • Overly negative
  • Personal attacks
  • Unfair criticism for something that is not your fault or outside of your control
  • Delivered in an unpleasant way

Do not put up with this kind of attack. If you do it will persist.

Ultimately, if you threaten to quit or feel completely destroyed at the slightest word of criticism at work, chances are you take things too personally. Realise that your critic – more often than not – has nothing against you, but instead thinks that you can use some improvement. This will ultimately help you accept criticism in the right spirit!

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