Few employees are happy when performance review time rolls around, and hardly anyone reacts with joy when the boss wants “a quick word.” People’s defenses go up when confronted with feedback. This is unfortunate, as most often, feedback is intended to be helpful. Understanding how to take constructive criticism can help you develop the skills you need for success in your career.
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First off, let’s define constructive criticism and how it differs from mere criticism. Constructive criticism is feedback intended to help you improve and perform at a higher level. Simple criticism is an attack that doesn’t help, and may be intended to hurt. Consider these two responses to employee performance:
- “Jim, your work is fine, but you could increase your productivity by reviewing and following established procedures.”
- Diane, your productivity is subpar. Improve, or there will be consequences.”
The first example is constructive, and provides a way for jim to improve which benefits both him and the company. The second offers no solution to the problem, relying instead on implied threats and intimidation. Diane is given no direction or guidance, and leaves the office feeling angry and demoralized.
A large part of learning how to take feedback is identifying the difference between constructive feedback and unhelpful criticism, and whether what seems to be criticism is intended as such. Diane’s manager may sincerely want to help her improve, but lacks the communication skills necessary to make his point.
Emotional reactions to feedback
Your emotional response to feedback is important. Most people think they’re performing to the best of their ability. When faced with feedback that calls this opinion into question, people often perceive criticism as a threat, and become argumentative, withdrawn, or resentful.
Feedback tends to trigger the brain’s primitive “fight or flight” response. This instinct has served humanity well–it kept your ancestors alive when confronted with predators, natural disasters, and other threats.
Unfortunately, the fight or flight response doesn’t differentiate between the stress caused by a charging rhino and a performance evaluation, and the resulting emotions often influence how we take feedback. One of the first steps in learning how to take constructive criticism, is to identify the emotions generated by feedback, and learn to take a step back from them.
Managing your own emotions makes you more aware of other people’s emotional response. you’ll be better able to understand your supervisor’s emotional state, which influences how well he or she delivers feedback.
How to take feedback, one step at a time
Identify your emotions
Take a moment to identify how you feel when you’ve given feedback. What triggered your emotional reaction? Was it pride, embarrassment, or does the criticism cut close to home? Accept the emotion without judgement and put it aside.
Watch your body language
How your boss perceives your reaction to feedback can affect the rest of the conversation. Scowling, rolling your eyes, and crossing your arms defensively may be tempting, but suggest you’re actively resisting what your boss has to say. Watch your supervisor’s body language as well–it may indicate she’s nervous or uncomfortable giving criticism, which influences how she presents feedback.
Keep an open mind
When confronted with criticism–even well-meaning criticism–it’s tempting to look for reasons why feedback is incorrect. It’s much more beneficial to stay open to the possibility the criticism is valid, and could be used to help you develop as an employee.
Ask clear questions
Ideally, your boss delivers feedback in a clear, easily understood manner, but this isn’t always the case. Ask for clarification or further information as needed. For instance, in Diane’s case the conversation got off to a terrible start. She might be able to turn the situation to her advantage by politely asking her boss for suggestions on how to improve her productivity, hopefully turning a confrontational conversation into a cooperative one.
Possible questions to ask include:
- Can you explain what you mean when you say x?
- Can you be more specific about x?
- What are your expectations concerning this issue?
- What does the issue look like from your perspective?
- Can you offer suggestions to help me perform more efficiently?
Once you and your supervisor agree on the issue, ask for advice on how to move forward, and thank them for taking the time to provide you with feedback. If its a large issue, suggest a follow up meeting to evaluate how successfully you;ve implemented changes.
Sometimes feedback doesn’t feel right, even after looking at it objectively. Should this occur, it’s helpful to seek advice from a third party. Ask a coworker you trust if the feedback sounds valid to them, and if they’ve noticed the issues your boss brought up.
If there’s little risk associated with following what seems like inaccurate feedback, give it a try anyway–it may turn out you were wrong. If not, you can at least report to your supervisor you took his advice seriously, but it proved infeasible. If you choose not to make changes based on feedback, explain your reasoning to your supervisor, so he or she at least knows you took the feedback seriously.
Ask for feedback proactively
Actively seeking out constructive criticism is one of the best ways to avoid negative emotional response to feedback. As long as you’re not just asking for praise, most bosses respond favorable to employees who seek feedback, and tend to rank such employees higher on performance appraisals.
Target specific issues when you ask for feedback. “How can I improve this task?” or “What’s one thing I’m doing that prevents me from reaching my full potential?” are better questions than “How am I doing?” Evaluate any feedback you receive, put any relevant advice into practice, and circle back to report on your results at a later date.
Learning how to take constructive criticism offers an important lesson: mistakes are not failures, but opportunities to improve. Everyone makes mistakes on the job. Not everyone knows how to take feedback and use it to improve their careers.