December 3, 2004
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There is a little that can be so useful, or
so damaging, as criticism. When given correctly, justly and without malice,
it can be the building block of a better career. Dealt out cruelly, meanly
and with venom, it can stunt the progress of even the best person. A great
career depends on understanding criticism, both how to deliver it and
how to receive it.
To give and to receive
How we receive criticism is important, both for our own psyche and for
our appearance to others. Allowing criticism to wrack us with doubt diminishes
our effectiveness, but ignoring the criticism of others, some of which
is inevitably true, shows arrogance and disdain. As in most things, happiness,
and usefulness, lie somewhere in the middle. We must take criticism to
mind, if not to heart. Instead of feeling it as the crashing of a wave,
we must pick and choose amongst the criticism, taking the useful parts
without accepting the poison others might sometimes seek to give us.
First, when accepting criticism, sit comfortably, attentively and quietly.
This is NOT the time to argue every point. I find my best defense against
arguing is to take copious notes and nod…a lot. This has saved me
many a bloodied tongue. Listen to the words the person uses. Are they
trying to help you or shame you? Shaming or threatening language is a
clear indicator that the criticism is less an indicator or your failings
and more about the issues of the critic. A good critic should offer suggestions
for improvements alongside any complaints.
Next, don’t attempt to answer the criticism immediately. Thank the
person and tell them you will think about what they have said. Take some
time to mull over the real issues embedded in the criticism and see if
you can tease out what underlying, and unspoken, issues might truly be
involved. Immediate responses turn into immediate defenses and often turn
into immediate arguments. Acknowledge that you have heard the criticism
and need some time to process what you have heard. This diffuses the immediate
emotional effects and lets you think about things with a clear head.
After you have had some time to think about things, you might want to
set a time to discuss the criticism with the evaluator. You will have
had time to develop plans and defenses for the criticism and you can present
them in a calm, clear manner. You will be amazed at how much better you
can deal with criticism when the adrenaline isn’t running through
your veins and your heart pounding in your ears. Your company might also
have a policy to include your written response to the criticisms in your
employee file and that might be the route to take. If it isn’t a
current policy you might ask to do it anyway, thereby helping to establish
it for others.
Be a better giver
Giving criticism requires just as much thought as receiving, and sometimes
even more. Too often we go off half-cocked, amped up on anger, frustration
and superiority, more intent on punishing someone than helping them become
better. The next time you are about to criticize someone, take a long
hard look at your reasons. Keep yourself from being guilty of trying to
improve your own position by criticizing someone else.
If you have thought through the issues and trust your intentions are in
the right place, meet with the person in a neutral environment, or in
place where the person is the most comfortable. They will hear your message
better if you aren’t staring over your polished mahogany desk at
Present your criticism in a clearly, defined fashion. Item 1. Issue. Possible
solutions. Item 2. Issue. Possible solutions. I would recommend addressing
no more than 2-3 issues at any one time. More than that and attention
starts to flag, distress starts to build and your message is lost. As
I mentioned above, give the person a chance to go off and think about
the criticism. Don’t challenge them to answer you immediately. Above
all, try to think how you would want to be treated if you were on the
other side of table.
Criticism and how you deal with it is very revealing. Through it, those
around you will learn very quickly about your character and your professionalism.
Give criticism well, receive it well and you will establish an important
cornerstone of your career.
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