From musicians and athletes to Nobel Peace Prize winners, business moguls and presidents, every professional is criticized about their work and their performance – and most will agree that they are better for it. Even the critics or critiques that we truly hate push us to defy them by being even better than what they make us out to be.
I remember watching a video in my clinical psychology class of a women having a therapy session with four different therapists – specifically, psychologists who were the figureheads of their particular therapy at that time. I recall two things about that video: 1) It was filmed in the 70’s, and the fashion at the time was just plain weird (what was with the half-buttoned shirts?) and 2) Only two of the therapies being used really stood out – Gestalt and Person-centered/Rogerian.
For those who aren’t familiar with these therapies, they are, in many ways, complete opposites. Person-centered involves a lot of empathy, a lot of empowerment, and a lot of “I understand. That must have been painful.” Gestalt therapy can be a bit more “in your face.” I remember the woman arguing with the therapist, who basically told her that she needed to stop acting like a victim, looking for pity, and essentially, toughen up. She was furious and on the verge of tears. At the end of her therapy sessions, she was asked which therapist she would likely return to. Oddly enough, while she said that the Person-centered therapist was so warm and understanding, she would return to the Gestalt one. Why? Because he challenged her. He criticized her. He forced her to take stock of her life, take charge, and be a better person.
Sometimes, we need to be shaken up a little. Granted, criticism is not easy to hear, but behind every critique lies a lesson. And those who are able to get past the harsh outer shell of criticism to the nugget of wisdom at its core will possess one of the major keys to success.
Research we conducted at Queendom using the Sensitivity to Criticism Test reveals that people who are more defensive in response to criticism scenarios on our test were also more likely to report lower levels of job satisfaction and to have poorer performance ratings. We assessed people’s responses to criticism on six factors:
1) Negative thoughts directed toward the critic (e.g. “People who criticize my work do so because they dislike me or are jealous of me.”)
2) Negative thoughts directed toward self (e.g. “When someone criticizes me, I can’t help but think I really am incompetent.”)
3) Negative emotional responses directed toward people who criticize them (e.g. feeling angry, bitter, resentful, etc.).
4) Negative emotional responses directed toward self (e.g. feeling sad, embarrassed, guilty, etc.).
5) Negative overt behaviors (e.g. scowling, arguing with critic, threatening to quit, etc.).
6) Negative or passive aggressive behaviors (e.g. purposely slacking off, secretly looking for a new job, completely ignoring criticism and not making any of the recommended changes, etc.).
Our statistics reveal that while women were more likely to direct their defensiveness inward (e.g. by taking the criticism personally; by being hard on themselves for not doing well) men were more likely to reflect their defensiveness outward, convincing themselves that the critic is wrong, and even going as far as to argue/disagree with the critique. Interestingly, one of the key factors that determined whether a person responded defensively to criticism was self-esteem. Those who became the most defensive were also more likely to have the lowest level of self-esteem. Here’s the kicker: Whether a person responds to criticism by putting themselves down or by fighting to protect their ego, the result was still the same – the defensive people in general still had lower self-esteem than the less defensive people.
So how do you take criticism without wanting to cry or strangle your critic? Here are some tips:
- Let go of your ego. Face it: Part of being a professional means being able to handle feedback on everything you do. Be willing to accept the fact that you do make mistakes and that there are still many things you can learn. Nobody makes it to the top without some help (or a nice kick in the butt) along the way.
- Accept who you are. Being ashamed of mistakes is actually one of the greatest errors we can commit. Making mistakes is part of being human, and to deny imperfection is to deny who we really are. Swallowing your pride and admitting when you are wrong (or could improve) does not make you inferior to anyone. There are very few people who have the courage to admit their faults, and far more people who secretly admire those who do. To admit a fault is a sign of strength.
- Actively listen and learn. As important as the criticism itself is, what you choose to take away from it is noteworthy as well. A lesson is being offered, so use it to every advantage. So at your next performance review, for example:
- Take notes about what has been said and suggested.
- Ask open-ended questions. “How should I approach this type of project/client/situation the next time around?”
- Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions.Just make sure to do so tactfully. Remember, the goal is to help you improve. For example, “Can you provide an example of when you felt I didn’t handle a project well?”
- Track your progress after you’ve implemented your manager’s guidelines for improvement.