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How to Take Constructive Criticism Like a Professional

Let me guess, you don’t like people criticizing you? It
doesn’t matter whether it’s your boss, colleagues, or friends, criticisms hurt. The fact
is that other people see your flaws better, so learning how to accept criticism is
vital if you want to improve at work. 

Accepting criticism
Accepting constructive criticism can be a challenge, but it can also help you improve. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

If you’re like many of us, you don’t know how to accept criticism—even constructive criticism. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to take constructive criticism well and use it to improve yourself.

Constructive Criticism vs Destructive Criticism

What is constructive criticism anyway? What qualifies as
constructive, and is therefore worth paying attention to? The difference lies in the
content and delivery of the feedback.

Although both types of criticism can hurt your confidence because of the way they challenge your skills or character, destructive criticisms are mostly personal attacks. Sometimes they’re deliberate,
other times they’re just a result of a lack of tact. Whatever the cause, you’ll know that it’s destructive criticism if it only
points out your flaws. Constructive criticism includes suggestions on how you
can improve.

The Problem With Employee Reviews & Typical Corporate Feedback 

Performance reviews are supposed to be a good opportunity
to hear what your manager thinks about your work. Historically speaking, research
published at Cambridge University Press suggests that it’s more of a paper-pushing
ritual mixed in with awkward conversations where both parties are afraid to
speak their mind. Many managers rate their employee as either “average” or “above
average”
to keep the status quo. They do this to:

  • Prevent them from getting demotivated
  • Keep top-performers from getting complacent
  • Evade potentially awkward questions from employees who might
    ask what they did to deserve such low ratings.

Employees are as much to blame as the system. Even in the
face of valid and constructive criticism from a legitimate source (i.e. your
manager), employees use different strategies to deflect blame, such as:

  • Criticizing the source or someone else so their flaws look
    less awful in comparison
  • Deflecting the weight or value of the criticism by playing
    up their strengths (e.g. “It doesn’t matter
    that I’m sometimes rude to customers because I sell more than my other
    teammates”
    )
  • Discrediting the source of criticism
  • Arguing about the critic’s judgment

But there’s a catch to evading negative feedback like this, writes
Robert Nash, Aston University Lecturer and Psychologist, “Failing to reach our goals makes us feel bad.”

So since failure will make you feel bad too, isn’t it better
to just face the criticism if it gets you one step closer to your professional
goals?

How to Take Constructive Criticism Professionally

1. Take a Step Back From Your First Reaction

Don’t jump at the chance to defend yourself as soon as the
person criticizing you stops to draw breath. That just makes you look defensive
and unable to handle negative feedback. Giving in to your anger or need to
justify yourself also prevents you from taking criticism objectively, so just
take a deep breath and follow the other steps below.

Besides, whoever is criticizing you will sense this and as a
result, hesitate to continue with what they’re telling you. You might have
saved yourself a few seconds of pain, but you also missed out on an opportunity
to improve.

2. Be Wary of Facial Expression and Body Language

Try not to roll your eyes, cross your arms, or frown when
criticized. Yes, your office is a professional environment, but that doesn’t
stop your manager and colleagues from picking up on emotional cues. Negative
facial expressions and body language suggest that you’re not interested in what
you’re hearing or that you want to end the conversation. Neither are great ideas if
you want to hear what others really thought of you.

3. Consider the Source

Criticism from a manager you don’t like could still be legitimate
or helpful in the same way that feedback from trusted colleagues could be disingenuous.
Always consider the source of the criticism and their motives.

4. Don’t Take It as an Insult

Don’t take it personally. Constructive criticisms are just
someone else’s observation of your work and skills in a professional setting—no
one is saying you’re a bad person. If they said something to that effect that
doesn’t qualify as constructive criticism anymore, so feel free to just ignore
it.

But as long as the feedback is about your work, such as the quality
of your output or the way you accomplish it, you should take it in good faith
that the person’s intention is to help you improve. Accept it graciously.

Try not to cry no matter how painful the criticism is because there’s no going back from that. You’ll
feel embarrassed to face that person again, and you might get labeled as “too emotional.” When that happens, there’s
a good chance no one in your office will ever be 100% honest about your work
again.

5. Figure Out Why You Got Defensive

Now that you’re calm, it’s time to examine why you got
defensive or upset in the first place.

What do you think triggered your initial reaction? For some
people, it’s pride, for others, it’s just
the embarrassment of getting called out. What’s your reason?

If you don’t know what your trigger is, dig deep until you
find out. Because your answer to that question is the key to avoiding all the
negative emotions that cloud your judgment
and by extension delay your growth.

Awareness is crucial in controlling negative emotions. So, once you know what your trigger is you can use it the next time your emotions overrule
your logic when someone criticizes you. Tell yourself that whatever you’re feeling
is just a gut reaction because of your (pride, embarrassment, fear of
rejection, etc.).

6. Listen for Understanding

After you get your emotions in check, it’s time to take
control of your racing thoughts. What’s the first thing on your mind when
someone criticizes you? It’s probably one of these things:

  • That’s not what I did/said.
  • Easy for him to say, he doesn’t know how hard it is to…
  • Actually, that’s not what you told me to do so…
  • Nobody told me about that, so it’s not my fault.
  • You should
    have…
  • I did this because…
  • This is the right way to do it because…

You may not be outwardly defending yourself, but you’re not
listening closely either. You’re just listening to formulate a reply that trumps
your critic’s statement. To avoid this,
try to listen to what the person is telling you word for word. Memorize what
they say so you can repeat it back to them in your own words. This shifts your
brain’s full attention to the other person with the added bonus of confirming
that you understand the feedback from the other person’s point-of-view. The following tutorial can help you improve you and your boss communication skills at work:

7. Realize Giving Feedback is Awkward and Not Easy for the Other Person

A lot of managers and certainly the majority of your colleagues
aren’t trained to give feedback properly. Even if they were, that doesn’t make
it any easier on their part. It sounds weird, but it’s easier to rant than it is
to give valid work-related criticism that includes a suggestion for
improvement.

Consider the
following examples, which do you think is easier to say to someone who made a
mistake?

“You’re a lousy video
editor”

“The last video you
edited looks like a rip-off of our main competitor. Next time, please find more
sources of inspiration so your work doesn’t look like a copycat.”

In the heat of the moment, it’s easier to say the first
statement. Even when your manager is calm, the prospect of you reacting negatively
is enough to make them feel uncomfortable. It’s just that they expect you to remain
professional. They also hope you know that they’re required to give you
feedback because it’s also their job that’s on the line.

Think where your boss is coming from next time you feel
upset about taking criticism. You’re not
perfect and neither are they, but the fact that they took time to point out
your mistake shows that they care about your career.

How to Use Constructive Criticism to Improve Yourself

Earlier you learned the process of keeping your composure
while receiving constructive criticism. Now it’s time learn how to use that
feedback for your professional growth. After all, what’s the point of accepting
people’s painful words if it won’t benefit you?

1. Stop Viewing Mistakes as Failures

Don’t think of your mistakes as failures, as that might be
one reason you get defensive when someone points a mistake out out. Making a mistake means
you’re human and that you still have lots to learn about your job. Each mistake
is just a lesson to be learned, not a sign that you’re a total failure.

Remember that everyone starts as a beginner and the same people criticizing you got their fair
share of painful feedback too. So, just accept that there’s a learning curve in
everything, whatever your position is on
the corporate ladder.

2. Ask for Specifics

Don’t accept blame for anything you don’t fully understand.
Who knows, you might be the one getting criticized, but it may not be your fault
at all. While that’s not always the case, it’s never a bad idea to clarify the
specifics of the complaint.

Ask exactly what it is you did wrong, what makes it wrong,
and how they prefer you to do it next time. You can also ask if this is an
isolated incident, or if you’ve committed the same mistake before to see if it’s
pattern behavior or just a one-time mishap.

3. Get a Second Opinion

Constructive criticism isn’t limited to the quality or
accuracy of your work. Sometimes, it’s about the way you do your job or how you
relate to others at the office. In both cases, the criticism will be
subjective. For instance, some people might appreciate your honesty, but other
people might think you’re rude or tactless. In this situation, it’s best to ask
for a second opinion or even multiple opinions.

Seek out the opinion of someone who can give an unbiased
opinion of you. If you’ve got time, try asking at least five people so you can get a better consensus of what others think.

4. Define Your Plan

By this time you know whether the criticism has merit and what you can do to improve yourself. Your next
step is to create a plan to address the issue so that you can learn from it and not
get told off for the same reason in the future.

Creating a plan to address your areas for
improvement doesn’t have to be complicated. Follow the steps below:

  • What went wrong? (Mistake)
  • Why did it happen in the first place? (Trigger)
  • Find a way to avoid the trigger.
  • Identify what you should’ve done instead and do it. (Correct action)

5. Follow Through

Send a thank-you email to the person gave you who feedback
explaining your plan to avoid the same mistake in the future. Include a meeting
request to discuss your improvement if your manager was the one who gave you
feedback. This may sound like too much to you, but this is the best way to show that
you’re committed to improving yourself.

Learn When to Let Go

Unless it’s a specific work procedure, a company policy, or
a matter of common-sense good behavior, you’re not obligated to take all the advice you receive. Remember, constructive criticisms are other people’s observations plus their suggestions on how you can improve. The catch is those suggestions
are based on their experience, and there are times when their experience is
different from yours. Sometimes, their suggestions might be inapplicable to you, so the best you can do is acknowledge that you’ve got a chance to improve, then
find your own way of doing it.

Don’t let the burdens of previous failures weigh you down. Beating
yourself up with all the things that you could’ve done better before is a waste
of time and energy. You’re better off channeling that energy into learning new
things and working on other goals.