How to Handle Criticism at Work: A Practical Guide

Observing how great managers handle criticism provides amazing lessons. Learning from criticism is an incredibly important step for everyone. As you progress your career and certainly as you progress through the management ranks, you are asked to handle more and more criticism in a positive way.

It can be infuriating to get criticism after you have put your heart and soul into planning a project, building a team or any number of other activities and tasks. You cannot please everyone, nor should you try to. Learn 5 actions to turn even the harshest of criticism into useful digestible feedback that won’t destroy your confidence.

Receiving criticism at work, whether during a performance review or in day-to-day interactions, can be difficult to navigate professionally and emotionally.

Constructive criticism, when delivered skillfully, provides vital feedback to improve performance. Destructive criticism that feels personal or hostile can shake your confidence.

Learning strategies to handle workplace criticism is an essential career skill. With the right mindset and tactics, you can derive value from negative feedback and prevent it from damaging your reputation or self-esteem.

Follow this comprehensive guide to give criticism less power over you and use it to your advantage.

Why Criticism Affects Us

Before exploring ways to skillfully manage criticism at work, it’s helpful to understand why we often take critical feedback so poorly:

  • Identity – We closely link performance to self-worth and value Criticism can feel like a personal attack

  • Fear – Negative feedback provokes anxiety about being viewed as flawed or even jeopardizing job security.

  • Ego – It’s hard not to become defensive when we feel threatened or unjustly accused

  • Stress response – Criticism activates our body’s instinctive “fight or flight” reaction.

  • Scarcity mindset – We focus on the bad news rather than viewing feedback as an opportunity to improve.

  • Lack of skills – Many have never learned effective strategies to handle criticism constructively.

Recognizing these tendencies is the first step in mitigating their impact.

Mindset Tips for Receiving Criticism

Adjusting your mental framework around criticism is essential. Some mindset shifts to make:

  • Expect that you’ll receive tough feedback at times and prepare mentally. It’s part of every role.

  • Try to avoid taking criticism personally. Focus on your actions rather than making it about you as a person.

  • View critical feedback simply as information to learn from, just like positive feedback.

  • Remember that the way criticism is delivered often says more about the other person than you. Stay objective.

  • Be open to feedback that can help you grow. Even veteran professionals have areas to improve.

  • Focus on the specific behavior being critiqued, not exaggerating the scope of the criticism.

  • Consider the source and motivations behind the criticism before assigning it too much weight.

  • Balance constructive criticism by also reviewing your strengths and achievements. One area for growth doesn’t define your entire performance.

Adjusting your inner narrative around receiving criticism reduces its sting and prepares you to respond thoughtfully.

Best Practices for Handling Criticism at Work

When you actually receive difficult feedback, how you respond in the moment makes all the difference. Follow these best practices:

Listen Without Interrupting

  • Give your full attention and listen to understand their perspective rather than preparing your rebuttal while they speak.

  • Hear them out fully before responding. Don’t interrupt. If needed, take time to process before the discussion.

  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Press pause mentally so you respond thoughtfully.

Ask Clarifying Questions

  • If the criticism feels overly general or unclear, ask for specific examples of situations that prompted the feedback. Vague criticism is difficult to act upon.

  • Confirm you understand correctly what behaviors they want you to change or improve.

  • Ask if they have any constructive suggestions for improving the area of concern. Silence can prompt them to provide solutions, not just complaints.

Express Appreciation

  • Thank them for taking the time to share candid feedback with you. This builds psychological safety to have productive discussions.

  • Say you appreciate them helping you see a blindspot because it will make you better at aspects of your role.

  • Express interest in learning different approaches and getting better in this competency.

Remain Calm and Professional

  • Keep your body language neutral and don’t mirror any visible frustration from the other person.

  • Avoid heated emotions and stay focused on the goal of having a professional discussion to improve your effectiveness.

  • Do not get defensive or escalate the intensity of the exchange.

Summarize Next Steps

  • Restate your key takeaways from the feedback and your plan to work on those areas. Share any ideas you have.

  • Ask if they would be open to a follow up conversation in a month to evaluate your progress.

  • Express confidence in your ability to improve with the issues raised.

Following up shows you took the criticism seriously and made their feedback worthwhile.

Strategies for Addressing Unfair Criticism

At times, you may receive criticism that feels exaggerated, inaccurate or unsupported. Several approaches can help:

  • Collect information – Probe for specific examples that substantiate the criticism. Vague negative generalities are unhelpful.

  • Provide context – Share additional details about the situation that the person may lack. Facts can counteract perceptions.

  • Suggest alternatives – If you have a different perspective, pose it as a constructive suggestion rather than contradiction.

  • Be solution focused – Redirect the conversation into planning how to improve or avoid the issue in the future. Dwelling on the criticism gets you nowhere.

  • Involve a third party – For recurring unfair criticism, loop in your manager or HR to mediate and coach communication in both directions.

  • Let it go – Pick your battles wisely. Providing more justification may fall on deaf ears. Refocus your energy productively.

Document unfair criticisms privately to establish a record if needed. But avoid dwelling on the past. Look ahead.

Developing Your Emotional Resilience

While mindsets, communication tactics and coping strategies help, criticism often takes an emotional toll. Here are some ways to become more resilient:

  • Take a timeout – If emotions run high, politely request to pause the conversation and pick it back up later. This lets you self-soothe and process.

  • Vent constructively – Speak privately with a trusted friend or mentor to release frustration in a safe space. Avoid public complaining.

  • Lean into strengths – Recall your accomplishments and unique value you provide. Criticism in one area doesn’t negate those.

  • Practice self-compassion – Would you talk to your best friend the way you talk to yourself? Be kinder to yourself.

  • Keep perspective – How will this matter in a year? Don’t let one criticism overshadow all your progress.

  • Learn from experience – Each tough feedback discussion will gradually become less intimidating.

Don’t allow criticism to fuel imposter syndrome or overwhelm you. Reframe it as an opportunity for positive change.

Turning Criticism Into Improvement

Rather than merely surviving criticism, use it to fuel your growth:

  • Evaluate feedback objectively – Review what was said calmly. Discard what feels unreasonable but be open to insights.

  • Identify opportunities – Criticism reveals where you have room to further develop relevant skills. Embrace the challenge.

  • Set measurable goals – Pick one recommended area of improvement to focus on at a time. Define specific goals.

  • Create an action plan – Determine the steps you will take to improve. Enlist help if needed from managers or mentors.

  • Assess progress – Revisit your goals in 30 and 60 days. Quantify improvements and remaining gaps.

  • Express appreciation – Thank colleagues who took the time to provide feedback aimed at your continued professional development.

With the right outlook, even tough criticism can positively impact your career over the long-term. You’ve got this!

how to handle criticism at work

Ask questions to get specifics – The second action that great managers handling criticism take

The majority of people give feedback in general terms. For example “I think your plan is rubbish” or “I can’t see how this project is going to work” or “This piece of work has lots of mistakes”.

Great they are voicing their concerns. To make the feedback useful to you – understanding what exactly they don’t like or disagree with – is needed.

Ask questions to get more depth. Ask questions to move the feedback from opinion led to factually led feedback. Then the criticism and negative feedback becomes useful to you.

For the “I think your plan is rubbish” comment, you could ask:

What exactly makes this plan rubbish? Which specific step needs to be changed in your opinion? What limits this plan from working?

For “I can’t see how this project is going to work” comment, you could ask:

“What do you think is stopping the project working?” “Which parts of the plan do we need to change? What would you do instead?

Keep asking clarification questions until you understand the specifics of the criticism and the why behind the criticism. Asking questions to learn more demonstrates you are listening and interested in what they think – good for any manager leading a team.

how to handle criticism at work

Find the kernels of truth – The third action

A lot of criticism is individuals expressing their difference of opinion. There can be a huge range of reasons of why they are criticising. For example, they could feel threatened in some way, or they may be afraid of looking silly if they need to learn something completely new, or they may have spotted something really important that you have missed.

You can learn a lot more than you think from criticism if you work to figure about what is behind the criticism. As a manager or leader of a team – learning the cause of criticism is gold dust – when it gives you signposts towards what you need to fix to improve team performance.

Don’t receive criticism as a personal knock or putdown. Ask yourself why are team members or colleagues criticising? Keep asking questions until you understand what is behind the criticism.

When you understand a problem, you have a good chance of fixing it to the benefit of all. If you don’t understand the problem, the chances of fixing it is very small.

Great managers look to remove problems and enable their teams to do the best work they can. Removing problems is a key way to leverage the efforts of your team members to produce great results. A manager that can get their team producing great results is going to be in demand and be asked to manager more people.

Work to find the kernels of truth in criticism.

How To Take Criticism Without Getting Defensive

How do you handle constructive criticism in a conversation?

For a conversation involving constructive criticism to go well, both parties must be fully present and ready to give and receive feedback positively. By telling someone this, you’re letting them know how to maximize the potential of a good conversation in the future. One way to handle destructive criticism positively is by making it constructive.

How do you handle criticism?

Criticism can come through official channels, like a one-on-one meeting with higher management. It can also happen more organically, like a team member suggesting improvement on a project. Regardless of the source, it can benefit you greatly to know how to handle criticism of all types, as it may not always be constructive.

Should you accept criticism at work?

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that constructive criticism may be the best way to get the attention of someone who has become unproductive or complacent. Accepting criticism at work can be an important step toward increasing your efficiency and professional success. Here are some steps for how to handle criticism at work:

How do I make the most of constructive criticism from my boss?

There are many steps you can take to make the most of constructive criticism from your boss or colleagues. The next time you receive constructive criticism at work, try: The first thing to do when receiving constructive criticism is to recognize its intent. Always assume the best intentions from the people providing criticism.

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