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How to Turn Workplace Criticism to Your Advantage

5 steps for maintaining a positive attitude and earning your boss’ respect


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Brooke Harrison

3 years ago | 6 min read

True character reveals itself in stressful situations — especially when you receive criticism.

Criticism is a hard pill to swallow. It’s tough to hear how you’ve messed up or fallen short. And it’s doubly difficult to take negative feedback without an attitude or emotional response — much less a positive one.

I’ve been there. It’s impossible to go through life without making mistakes. And in the working world, it’s someone’s job to point out those mistakes and make sure you learn from them.

“If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.” ~ Neil Gaiman

Like anything else, it’s all in how you look at the situation. Feedback — even criticism — is a learning opportunity.

Not only that, but you have a chance to stand out and impress upper management. When you turn it around and maintain a positive attitude in the face of an uncomfortable situation, you earn the respect of your boss and coworkers.

Here’s a set of steps to keep in mind the next time you’re called into the boss’ office or prepping for a performance review:

Step 1: Listen with an open mind and don’t react emotionally

If someone is giving you negative feedback, they have the floor. Now is not the time to be reactive.

Step 1 is about keeping your emotional response in check. Your first instinct may be to give an explanation or defense. Let me be honest with you… You could have all the valid reasons in the world to explain your actions, but they will still sound like excuses. I’m not saying there isn’t a time for that, but now is not it.

Do not be defensive. Do not make excuses. And do not lay blame.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “I would never do that.

That would never be me.” I’ve thought so, too. But when you have feelings of embarrassment or shame in the pit of your stomach, you’ll say almost anything to make the other person look at you with respect again.

Rather than brainstorming all the “right” things to say, try to listen closely instead. If you’re simply waiting for your turn to speak, to spew excuses or blame, you’re going to miss everything they’re saying.

You need to understand what’s being said and commit it to memory. I like to pretend it’s a fact-finding mission. This helps me detach from my overwhelming emotional response and focus instead on the other person’s points.

Step 2: Ask yourself, “Is there truth to this?”

We’re intelligent thinkers; we don’t often take people at their word unless we have good reason to trust them. It’s OK to weigh the validity of someone’s words based on their reasoning or evidence, even when it’s a trusted boss, coworker, or a person in authority.

This is important because their criticism may not be true. As you’re listening to their reasoning or examples, you may confidently realize they’ve got the wrong idea or don’t have the full story.

That said, you’ve got to be an active listener and give them the opportunity to spit it all out before you make a judgment call.

What can you take away from the conversation? Even when it isn’t right, there’s usually a kernel of truth. Listen to understand why your boss or coworker felt this way. There’s something to be gained even in misunderstandings or a misinterpretation. How can you prevent it going forward?

Be honest with yourself. In all likelihood, this person has made a good point. If they’ve taken the time to sit down with you and bring it to your attention, their issue is significant enough to warrant a closer look and think about how you can improve.

Step 3: Ask for clarification or suggestions for improvement

You’ve reached your first opportunity to respond. Ask one of the following questions:

  • “Can you give me an example?”
  • “How can I improve?”

If you don’t understand their feedback, ask questions. Ask for an example if their feedback or criticism is vague (something like, “Your performance isn’t up to par”).

Remember, you’re only seeking clarification. You’re not trying to trap anyone or prove a point. Specific examples are helpful to you when it comes to avoiding the same mistakes.

On the other hand, you may not need to ask for clarification if they’ve been clear and specific with their constructive criticism. If they haven’t already given advice, ask for their suggestions on how to improve.

Feedback is awesome — but only when there’s an actionable takeaway. It’s not helpful for anyone if they tell you what’s wrong, but not how to fix it. And it’s all too easy to tell people what they’re doing wrong.

So be sure to walk away from the conversation with a clear road map for improvement.

Step 4: Send a “thank you”

After the meeting, send a follow-up message to thank this person for their feedback.

No, this is not required. Nobody expects you to follow up with a “thank you” for negative feedback. That’s why it stands out.

This is your opportunity to showcase maturity and communicate your understanding of the issue and your commitment to improvement.

Remember what it was like to get in trouble as a kid? I don’t know about you, but my parents often asked me to repeat their instructions to be sure I’d understand. “Yes, mom, I won’t slam doors in the house.” That’s what your message is about.

It’s also an opportunity to take control of the situation and close things out on a positive note.

For some people, it’s more difficult to master their emotions in the heat of the moment. It may take all of your energy to sit there with your lips pressed together so you don’t say something you’ll regret. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it may take just as much energy not to cry.

Neither one of these reactions showcases a particularly “positive” attitude, right?

You’ll have the “final word” if you follow up with a quick email to thank this person for their feedback. There are 3 ingredients to an appropriate message: (1) the “thank you” phrase, (2) your summary of their criticism, and (3) commitment to action.

Acknowledge their feedback and show your understanding by summarizing the critique in your own words. And, lastly, close out the email with a statement showcasing your commitment to improvement and change.

“Hi team, Thank you for your time this afternoon. I appreciate the honest feedback, and I look forward to improving at [fill in the blank].”

Greeting + Thank you for [fill in the blank] + Commitment to improve.

Step 5: Schedule a follow-up appointment

You thought it was over, didn’t you? If you’re like me, you probably hoped you wouldn’t have to think about it ever again. But it’s happened, and there’s no going back. The best way to put it behind you is to make the necessary improvements and then confirm you’re on the right track.

Don’t wait around for your supervisor to recognize your progress and pat you on the back. Most likely, you’ll need to put it on their radar.

I say this because it’s not your boss’ job to monitor your daily performance.

They need to have a birds’ eye view, and they’re not in the weeds with everyone else. What you don’t want to happen is a repeat conversation in your next performance review, simply because your boss wasn’t paying attention, and it’s the only thing they can reach for.

Don’t let this one criticism label you.

So put a reminder on your calendar to approach your boss again.

Give yourself a period to implement the changes, maybe 3–6 weeks, and then book time with your boss to discuss your performance. Be prepared to share concrete examples of how you’ve implemented their feedback and achieved the new desired outcome. Ask your boss if you’ve made appropriate progress.

This accomplishes the following:

  • You took the initiative.
  • You have a commitment to your work, and you took their feedback seriously.
  • *Showcases a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and grow.

*Otherwise known as humility.

Takeaway

In the workplace, it’s common for people to respond to criticism professionally, but not always positively.

A positive attitude says, “Hey, I can bounce back.” Your positivity shows maturity, humility, commitment to your team, and a willingness to improve.

Yes, you can earn your team’s respect even in the face of uncomfortable situations. When you receive constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement, feel grateful that this person is invested in your growth and performance.

Feedback is necessary. Now it’s time to show them what you can do.

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