Everyone’s a critic.

This dismissive expression is meant to criticize the act of criticism and undermine its value. But when received and managed properly, criticism is a useful tool.

You may think of criticism in a negative light: As disapproval. Finding fault. Judgement.

But consider the function of film, book, or art criticism. In this application, criticism is an evaluation of both mistakes and merit. It is an appraisal of work, its flaws and attributes, and ideally, helps identify things that could have been done differently to produce an even better result (according to the standards of the critic).

With that definition in mind, here are 7 helpful steps for responding well when criticized at work:

Understand criticism

Criticism feels negative. But it can also be honest feedback that spurs positive change or growth.

Criticism may be about well-defined and measurable benchmarks like deadlines, procedures, or rules. It can also reflect the sensibilities, perspective, and judgement of the giver. Before you respond, consider the context, and pinpoint the core issue so you react in the most beneficial way.

Maybe you’re told you “speak up too often”–but you know the critic prefers running meetings with questions and comments saved for later. Instead of rejecting their criticism, receive and digest it, then talk to the giver about meeting participation and seek a mutually acceptable resolution.

Understanding the context of the criticism by opening a dialogue can turn condemnation into collaboration.

Don’t respond impulsively

No one likes to be called out or examined. But when it happens at work, withhold your impulse to respond on the spot–and that includes facial expressions and body language. It takes practice and willpower to not raise an eyebrow, sigh, or cross your arms when confronted with an unexpected critique.

Learn to simply listen–and repeat what you’ve heard, so you’re sure you got it correctly.

Stopping your reflexive response will allow you to properly absorb the feedback without adding negativity to the exchange or preventing further dialogue.

Reframe and digest

Try not to resent being criticized. This is difficult; it’s natural not to want to be judged by others and easy to feel ego bruised.

But if you reframe criticism as feedback, and take the time to digest it before responding, even negative commentary can be constructive.

Don’t take it personally. True criticism (and not harassment or bullying) will be about your work performance and not your character. Assessments of your work are to be expected, even if the source or timing catches you by surprise.

Be sure you truly understand the criticism–by repeating it and asking questions for clarity if necessary. Then give yourself time to consider it. There’s no need to respond immediately other than to say, “Thank you for your feedback. I’d like to think about this for a bit and then get back to you.”

Ask for specifics and action

To make criticism constructive, ask for specifics. If the assessment is vague (“You didn’t complete this project like I expected.”), dig deeper to get to the actionable core (“What specific expectations were unmet? How might I handle such a project differently in the future?”)

Criticism is most constructive when the call to action is clear and possible solutions are discussed. Questions to think about include:

  • What different outcome would you have liked to see?
  • Can you give me an example of when I did [X]?
  • Do you mind if I talk to my [team/supervisor/boss] about this? I’d like to hear their thoughts as I process this feedback.
  • What specifically should I be [including/writing/saying/doing] that I did not?

Find the merit

Remind yourself that feedback is essential to learning and learning leads to growth.

Being open to the thoughtful evaluation of others can help you avoid career pitfalls like developing poor habits, assuming your methods are the best way to do something, or not meshing with company culture or style.

Consider criticism a valuable part of career development. If you’ve learned something from a critique that could improve your job performance, make use of it.

Show gratitude

Yes, really! Criticism is part of healthy workplace communication. The person giving it may feel awkward or uncomfortable about the exchange, and likely means no ill will. As the receiver, be gracious, mature, and professional.

Say thank you. Appreciate that someone cared enough about the work that they took time to evaluate part of the process. More specifically, they were interested enough in helping you improve that they spoke up. That is preferable to working with people who are apathetic.

Follow up

Once you’ve applied the suggestions, made the changes, or otherwise incorporated the criticism into your work–revisit.

Let the critic know what actions you’ve taken.

Ask if they’ve noticed a difference and if the desired results have been achieved.

Doing this will establish yourself as open and improvement-minded and help nurture a supportive growth environment at work.

Handling Criticism

Learning how to turn negative feedback into something positive is a skill that will serve you well. Nobody likes harsh feedback, but if you receive it graciously, understand it properly, and embrace its value, you can use criticism as a way to get ahead.


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