How to Handle Criticism at Work Like a Professional

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How to Handle Criticism at Work Like a Professional
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How to Handle Criticism at Work Like a Professional

Do you look forward to football season like a lot of people do?

There’s nothing quite like a lazy Sunday afternoon, where everyone is sitting in a cozy armchair or lounging on the couch with a beer in hand, and there’s a half-eaten pizza on the table.

Between gossiping about friends and chatting about the news, everyone offers their critique of the game.

“Can you believe he missed that field goal at 36 yards! They’re throwing points away!” and “How did the quarterback not see that receiver? He was wide open!”

As a general rule, it’s really, really easy to offer criticism.

Receiving it, however, is another story.

It’s crushing to be called out by a manager for being over budget, or to get dinged on a performance review. Your gut reaction is to lash out and blame someone else, or curl up inside yourself like a turtle.

It’s sheer fantasy to think that by staying on top of our game, we can avoid criticism. It’s everywhere. No one escapes it.

The secret, really, is knowing how to navigate it. There’s a craft to handling criticism at work, and knowing what criticism to accept and what to deflect. Let’s look into it.

Responding to Criticism in the Moment

Responding to Criticism in the Moment

Sometimes criticism comes completely out of the blue. You get to work (late, for the third time that week), and right off the bat the manager pulls you aside with a brusque, “We need to talk.” And immediately the poached eggs you ate for breakfast start to scramble inside your stomach.

At other times, after blowing a deadline or bombing a presentation, you kinda know what’s coming.

Either way, any rough conversation with a manager leaves most of us feeling as powerless as a mound of jello.

Rather than let our emotions be our compass, however, at times like these it’s helpful to have a plan for traversing the rocky path of responding to criticism. Here are four suggestions.

1. Listen

Usually, the second we hear any criticism directed our way, we’re already formulating a rebuttal: “Let me tell you why I am late,” succeeded by a litany of excuses.

However, you need to take more than a split second to assess the situation. Find clarity as to what the manager is saying by calmly asking questions, out of curiosity.

In order to take the emotion out of the situation, pretend you’re asking on behalf of a friend, with questions like: “Can you explain why this has been such a problem?”

The objective is to understand everything that is going on. Why does it matter so much that they’d bring it up with you?

2. Pause and Collect

Receiving criticism is hard, particularly when it’s poorly delivered, and it’s good to take a moment to acknowledge this.

After receiving a harsh lecture, the tendency is to head in one of two directions: either attack the person who’s giving it, or retreat and get defensive.

Rather than letting emotions dominate our actions, just take a moment to breathe. Establish some emotional detachment from the situation, and remind yourself that it isn’t personal. You’re discussing a work situation, but it’s not your whole life.

This distance creates a good foundation to formulate a constructive response.

3. Repeat Back What Was Said

After the manager has said his or her piece, come to an understanding of everything that was communicated.

Ask clarifying questions such as, “So it sounds like you’re saying…” Try to get at not only the criticism, but also why it matters.

Repeating everything back lets the manager know you’ve accepted and digested the message. It makes you look professional and responsible.

Offer a Solution

4. Offer a Solution

You probably have a really good explanation for the criticism. (“There was traffic, and my kids are sick, that’s why I’m late.”)

Regardless, and even if you’re being criticized for something that isn’t entirely your fault, this isn’t the time for excuses or explanations.

Rather, this is a window for offering a solution. For example, if you were criticized for going over budget or not meeting a deadline, say you’d like to meet earlier next quarter to develop a better strategy.

It may entail some quick thinking to come up with a solution right away. But it communicates that you want to work with the situation, and that you’re a team player.

It also acknowledges the chain of command. A “please help me get better” tone never hurts in a situation like this.

These four steps provide a path for responding constructively to criticism from a manager. Although you might come up with a different formula, the key is to detach yourself emotionally from the situation, and behave professionally.

Taking Action Afterwards

Taking Action Afterwards

It’s tempting to shoo a difficult confrontation under the rug and just get on with things, acting like nothing ever happened.

However, when you’ve had a chance to go to your office and decompress, it’s a really good idea to take further steps to resolve the issue.

Here are a few suggestions.

1. Write Out What Happened

When your memory is still fresh, jot down everything the manager said, and your response, then read it back over. This may help to diffuse any angst you’re feeling, as it provides objectivity.

It’s good to have this document to reference later. Our imaginations can do wild things, and so having an accurate summary keeps you from exaggerating the story into something like “He was yelling and screaming at me,” or “They just think I am the worst.”

2. Send an Email to Recap

Once the situation is clear in your own head, follow up with the manager. This may take some deep breaths, but it’s worth it.

The intent of the email is to establish understanding. So cut anything out that sounds apologetic, accusatory, or snarky. Be sure to include any follow-up steps you intend to take.

The manager will appreciate this response, as it communicates responsibility.

3. Assess the Criticism

Next, take some time to personally reflect what was said. Was the criticism merited? Were you really at fault?

This takes a lot of honesty. It may be that we’re called out on the carpet for something we had no part in, and it’s entirely unfair. In this situation, search out documentation to prove your point, and present it without any blame or accusations.

However, more often than not, there is some merit in the criticism. It may indicate an area for you to improve.

Finding a third party to talk things over may shed some light on the scenario. It’s a good idea to find a neutral person like a career counselor, rather than a friend or family member who might take your side completely. You need an objective assessment–someone who’s able to see all sides and offer you their perspective.

4. Get a Plan

When you’ve identified what you need to improve, figure out how you’re going to do it. If you’re always running late, maybe tweak your morning routine. If you’re over budget, research a new system to use on the next project.

The fact that the manager confronted you means they have a less-than-ideal image of your work ethic or behavior. Making changes allows the manager to see you in a new light.

5. Get Over It

Once you’ve accepted the criticism and made a plan of action, it’s time to get over it. Don’t dwell on the “unPHAIRness” of it, or berate yourself.

Take it in perspective. Consider the criticism in light of everything you’re doing right in your job and in your life. It may still sting a little bit, but remind yourself that criticism is natural and normal, and decide to move on.

In sum, taking action after a difficult conversation helps to resolve the issue and heal any tension in the working relationship. It’s hard to accept criticism, but sometimes the best way through a challenge is by going through it, and not avoiding it.

Handling Non-Constructive Criticism

Handling Non-Constructive Criticism

Every office has some mean bullies, or people with downright poor communication skills.

Sometimes they’ll vent frustrations without really thinking things through and resort to abusive language and ad hominem attacks.

It’s certainly not fun when this is directed at you. However, what these people say and how they say it reflects on them, but how you respond reflects on you.

When deciding how to handle mean or abusive criticism, it’s good to consider your professional reputation, and the impact it can have on your social capital. Here are a few guidelines.

1. Take a Breather

If you’re really triggered by a hurtful or nasty comment, it’s best to step away from the situation for a time, to prevent it from turning into a real fracas.

Walk around the block, get some coffee, or let it rest for the weekend. When the emotion has cooled down, you’re in a much better headspace to formulate a response, or determine if the situation even merits one.

2. Talk it Over Before Responding

Before responding to mean criticism, especially if it’s in writing, go over your response with a friend. Aim for a civil exchange, and don’t include anything that could be used against you.

3. Be Professional

Before responding to an office bully, think about your overall goals. Office behavior is noticed by everyone. Keeping yourself out of ugly office politics reflects well on you.

Although this isn’t possible in every situation, try not to burn any bridges. Everyone has different sides to their personality and at some point you may build a positive relationship with this same person, so long as the door is still open.

In sum, receiving harsh and mean criticism is one of the hardest things that can happen at work. It breaks down team spirit and makes it difficult to do your job. It’s helpful to have a few tools for responding professionally.

Evaluating and Accepting Criticism

Evaluating and Accepting Criticism

Even if you’re handling criticism well, it can still get inside your head and demoralize you. Some criticism is entirely irrelevant, and so the last thing you want to do is take it to heart.

Here are some methods for discerning if criticism is valuable, and deflecting messages we’re better off ignoring.

1. Manage Your Self Talk

Even when people say harsh or critical things, you still control how you absorb it. Take some time to identify the narrative you’re telling yourself. Push back on any messages that say “I’m not as good as them,” or “I’m a failure.”

Rather than listen to mean criticism, determine the story that you want to be telling yourself, and listen to that instead.

2. Know Who to Cut Out

Some of the criticism we receive really helps us, while a lot of it needs to be flushed down the toilet. How to know the difference?

Carlo Iaonne of ICM Career Coaching says to make this determination by asking yourself two key questions:

  • Does this person have my best interest in mind?
  • Is there a part of this person that I aspire to be like?

This simple criteria helps you separate the wheat from the chaff, and listen only to advice that is truly helpful.

3. Listen to Yourself First

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right–for you’ll be criticized anyway,” said Eleanor Rosevelt.

In our social media culture, where amassing followers and likes is what it’s all about, it’s easy to think that receiving criticism means we’ve done something wrong.

But the truth is, people are going to criticize you, regardless. When you know what you want, what you think, and what your goals are, then messages from other people, be they positive or negative, are easier to tune out.


Just like metal and steel, criticism is one of the hard facts of life.

When receiving criticism, it’s good to have a plan of action, in order to avoid making an unhinged, emotional response. It’s also important to discern when to accept criticism and when to reject it.

And criticism isn’t necessarily a bad sign. Receiving criticism means you’re being heard–people don’t criticize someone they never think about.

Anyone can offer advice from the comfort of their living room, but not everyone is willing to step out there and fail.

So don’t be too concerned about getting written up, or notes in your employee file.

Ultimately, it’s about what you think, anyway.

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