Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch


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 them.

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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