Setting aside your emotions and getting advice from trusted colleagues can help.
One of the hardest lessons in life is learning how to handle criticism. With the right frame of mind, it can be a springboard for gaining a new perspective. But sometimes it can be extremely hard to hear frank advice, especially if you feel like you’re constantly in the wrong.
It could be worse. Think of those poor contestants on the BBC’s Apprentice, who have to deal with highly dramatised character assassinations and finger-pointing at the hands of Lord Sugar each week. But if you don’t have the ego of an Apprentice contestant (and who does?), how should you deal with a boss for whom nothing seems good enough? Here are five tips to help you learn from negative feedback at work, and convert even your harshest critic into an ally.
DISENGAGE YOUR EMOTIONS
At the time, it can be difficult to differentiate between a constructive evaluation of your work and personal criticism, so take a deep breath and document everything. It may not be easy, but listen and keep your emotions in check. Don’t feel compelled to agree or disagree with your manager’s observations, but ask for specific examples where you could have handled things differently, as well as recommendations for improvement.
Remember – your boss is responsible for managing the performance and wellbeing of employees in the team. Our research shows that managers who actively help employees find solutions to their problems have a significantly higher performance, so it’s in their interest to help you do your job better.
TAKE TIME OUT
Before closing the meeting, try to diffuse any tension so that you end on a positive. Set a date for your next discussion – don’t leave it much longer than a week – and allow yourself enough time to absorb and reflect.
After a painful encounter, you may be tempted to avoid your boss, trying to remain upbeat and carrying on as usual. Your instant reaction may even be to attempt to change things immediately. Don’t. It’s important to give specific pieces of advice space to breathe.
Group the points of criticism under broad headlines to help identify the root cause of the issue. More often than not, they will fall into three categories: process, performance or communication.
Consider whether what you’ve been told is valid and actionable, or if there is a deeper issue to address. Work out where your boss is coming from – otherwise you risk being stuck in the same negative cycle.
Have you genuinely slipped up, or is there something else driving the feedback? Constant negativity can be a sign of your manager losing control – perhaps they’re unhappy in or outside of work – or it may be their way of initiating action from the team.
DON’T SUFFER IN SILENCE
Seek advice from a trusted peer to help gain perspective. Find out whether your colleagues have had any similar issues with the individual in question, and talk through your problems in a balanced, rational way. Remember, you are trying to take the heat out of the situation, not escalate it further by staging an office coup.
LET IT GO
Before you see your boss again, decide which issues you’ll be letting go, as well as those that you’ll be raising. Formulate a plan around how to act on your manager’s feedback, and make sure you’re equipped with examples of “key wins” so you can balance the conversation. Try to reset your emotional meter to zero.
In short, if you feel that constant criticism is grinding you down, follow your head, not your heart. Offering advice to help you improve is part of your boss’s role, and it should also create a work environment that supports your success.
Nick Shaw is an occupational psychologist and director of consulting at CEB, the member-based advisory company.
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