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How to handle criticism at work

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Aditi Sharma Kalra’s honest and straightforward guide on responding to negative feedback in a positive way.

We’ve all been there. Put in our hardest effort, worked long hours and even gone the extra mile – only to be criticised for imperfections big and small. It takes a grain of provocation for this conversation to go south into a war of words, or worse a reply-all email territory; instead, it takes all your emotional energy to stay calm, patient and composed, and walk off from this conversation with a smile and a handshake.

Given just how often we all deal with this, without further ado, let’s dive into some ways we can all respond to negative feedback in a positive way.

First, listen to the message, not the tone. With all the dramatic words usually peppered while delivering criticism, “it is easy to simply take criticism wholesale and focus on how the message was delivered to you”, says Ang Woon Jiun, group learning manager at COMO Hotels and Resorts.

The subsequent emotional drive may leave you feeling like you need to justify yourself on the spot. Ang urges us to read a little deeper: “When a supervisor says, ‘You spent so much time and got it all wrong’, they probably mean, ‘I believed in you and I am disappointed you did not deliver’.”

Having taken the calmer route, the next step is to “dig deeper as to the source of the criticism, background to the issue raised, and the probable immediate trigger,” says Vishal Chhiber, VP of human resources at Emerio GlobeSoft.

This action of trying to address the cause and not the symptoms behind it is also recommended by Sonam Jain, vice-president of HR for Asia Pacific at DHL eCommerce, who recommends asking ourselves three precise questions:

  • Is this feedback coming directly from the person giving it to you? This helps you determine if it’s not hearsay.
  • What was the “specific” action and the “impact” it had on the person providing the feedback? This helps you narrow down exactly what you did, and it’s probable impact that you didn’t realise.
  • What would the person suggest you do differently to have a better outcome? This helps you understand the other person’s perspective and opens a possibility for a positive discussion.

Possibly, these questions will help you objectively evaluate the criticism on its merit by checking its validity – with the result that your response is more likely to be positive, rather than defensive.

It’s simply not worth your time to give it a second thought, say if it’s from someone you know who finds something to criticise about everyone.

Body language and gestures play a role as well, wherein Chhiber recommends sharing a smile with the feedback giver to disarm them. After all, it takes courage to give feedback, and although it may not always seem so, in most cases you’re receiving critical feedback because the giver cares enough about you to share honestly.

Finally, to close the loop, say thank you, and promise to get back if it is required. “Accept if you are at fault, share facts and correct the other party if needed, without getting offensive,” Chhiber says.

Ang adds: “Think about the criticism over a night or more and then get back to the person to share objectively your thoughts about it. Chances are, there will be at least some truths to what the person said.”

You may, of course, have faced cases of unqualified or unsolicited criticism (who hasn’t?). At times, it could be someone just venting their frustration from an unrelated incident, but at other times it should just be taken with a grain of salt.

“It’s simply not worth your time to give it a second thought, say if it’s from someone you know who finds something to criticise about everyone,” shares Margie Warrell, leadership speaker and founder of Global Courage, in her article called Handle Criticism Better.

“What you need to decide is how much authority you want to give to the person who has criticised you to begin with. If they’re doing it anonymously (like on social media), then I would recommend ‘not much’!

Yet, if they are someone you know, someone who generally would not be critical without a good reason, then maybe their feedback is worth trying to understand,” she says.

Whatever the case you’re facing, I hope this advice from HR experts helps you as much as it did me.

To conclude, a message from Jain, I agree fully with: “I strongly suggest to everyone, never outrightly reject feedback. It takes courage for someone to give feedback and it takes maturity for you to turn that into a positive discussion or an improvement exercise.”


Have you faced criticism at work recently? Share your anecdote and how you handled it with us at aditis@humanresourcesonline.net

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Aditi Sharma Kalra

Human Resources Magazine Singapore
When not spending her time eating or watching dog videos, Aditi loves to read, write, and tweet about HR. She is managing print, digital and social content for Human Resources, across Singapore and Malaysia.

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