Handled poorly, criticism at the office can spur lasting tension and grudges. “But if it’s handled right, negative feedback is a gift,” says Henry Evans, co-author of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter. Sometimes you have to dole out the pain, and sometimes you have to take it. Either way, here’s how to turn workplace heat into career-building success.
Don’t save it up
Confrontation sucks, which is why most people—even bosses—do it as rarely as possible. Instead they let it simmer and build until it explodes in the worst possible way, like an angry outburst at a meeting. Instead, handle it soon after the offending behavior has occurred, and deal with it calmly and privately, says Joshua Ehrlich, an executive coach based in New York. It’s the best way to ensure the receiver will respond constructively.
Focus on results
All workplace criticism should be tied to one of three things: “Goals, roles, and procedures,” says Ehrlich. If you impugn the guy’s character, he won’t listen—or he’ll just get angry. Also, there’s no point in telling him he’s incompetent—if he simply can’t do the job, then bring in HR. If he can do the job, use the so-called “Situation-Behavior-Impact” model: Describe the situation where the problem arose, then the behavior that created the problem, and then its impact. After that, make a specific request about how to resolve the situation or otherwise change course. Better yet, ask him how he’d fix the situation he’s created, and then ask him to act on it.
Do it more often
If your tennis coach only pointed out the problems with your backhand once a year, how effective would that be? Bosses—the coaches of the workplace—shouldn’t save up criticism for the annual performance review, Ehrlich says. It should be part of a regular and ongoing conversation about performance. And it should be heavily outweighed by praise, if possible. Ehrlich suggests maintaining a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative feedback: “Criticism will be received better if the subordinate feels you’re supportive of their success.”
Take a deep breath
Beware: Criticism feels like an attack, and your fight-or-flight reaction will kick in. A defensive or angry response is likely to backfire. So just take a moment to calm down. “It’s perfectly okay to say, ‘I’d like to think about this and get back to you. Could we set up a time to talk about this later so we don’t have any interruptions?’” says Mitchell Kusy, Ph.D, a corporate psychologist and professor at Antioch University.
Now, flip your script: Well-meaning criticism can help to pop the “bubble” of rosy self-perception that many of us are trapped in, says Ehrlich. “People deal with you based on what they think of you—not what you think they should think about you,” Evans adds. “It’s a good predictor of whether you’re given resources, promoted, or demoted.” Your critic is willing to risk confrontation to help you see outside that bubble.
Even if the criticism is delivered thoughtlessly, it might still have a grain of truth. Ask for details about what you’re doing wrong. “You’re trying to separate fact from fiction,” Kusy says.
If the criticizer is getting personal, take the edge off by asking how your misbehavior or performance misfires are tied to specific organizational goals, roles, and responsibilities, Ehrlich says. Or try a little jiu-jitsu and yield to the attack, he suggests: Admit to missteps, but don’t admit to a character flaw. Then get right back to business. (Ehrlich calls it “fogging.”)
If the critique is on target, then it’s time to face the music: Apologize and say exactly how you’l fix things, Evans says. You could even ask your supervisor to inform you next time he or she detects further trouble, Ehrlich adds. If the critique is inaccurate, that doesn’t mean you can ignore it. Listen to the emotions behind it and try to empathize, Evans says. Ask yourself: Why did I make this guy frustrated or angry? What can I do to make it easier to work with him? You don’t have to acknowledge he’s right, but you can say you’re sorry he feels that way, Evans says.
If the critique is downright malicious—designed to humiliate or undermine you—you shouldn’t ignore it either, Evans says: “Silence is a passive endorsement of the behavior.” If it’s part of a pattern, then confront him on it and ask him to justify his actions or clarify his position. He’ll think twice before trying to hurt you again.