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How to Take Criticism Well

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to run an organization. I was excited about the possibilities ahead of us and the goals we could realize. However, instead of receiving unanimous enthusiasm for what I thought was an exciting vision, some team members found fault with my ideas and judged me personally. They said my agenda was too ambitious and self-serving. Some thought I wasn’t listening to what my constituents wanted.

Even though three-quarters of the team supported my vision, I fixated on the quarter that did not. I knew I was generally well-liked because I spent a large portion of my time and energy on pleasing others. The thought that some people didn’t like me felt like a punch in the gut. I lost sleep, couldn’t concentrate, and lost five pounds in one week (not how I wanted to lose those pounds). I started to consider how I could give in to what the naysayers wanted, even though it wasn’t the right thing for the organization.

Eventually, after a lot of hard work, I figured out how to be resilient when being criticized. This enabled me to stand my ground and take actions that benefited the organization, not just my self-worth. Here are the lessons I learned from that experience:

Be prepared; don’t freeze. Criticism is inevitable, especially if we invite diverse perspectives and boldly lay out a big vision. Unfortunately, our response to the disapproval of others may not be entirely within our control. Feeling “attacked” may trigger an involuntary fight-flight-or-freeze response in the amygdala. We may capitulate, cry, or lash out — actions we’ll probably regret later. We’ll probably also think of the perfect response but only after the fact. Instead of being caught off guard, prepare a list of three to five ways to respond to critics in the moment. Have these responses handy on your phone or a sticky note in case your brain draws a blank. For example, you might paraphrase what you heard to ensure you correctly understood what was said and demonstrate to the other person that you’re listening. Or you could say something like, “This is a new perspective. I appreciate your willingness to share a different point of view. I’d like to give this genuine consideration and get back to you.”

Calibrate; don’t catastrophize. If it’s very important to you that people like you and your ideas, you may be particularly sensitive to any form of censure. But try to keep things in perspective. For example, in a meeting, small gestures from the team such as throat clearing or focusing on a phone during your presentation may be the result of an allergy or distraction not negativity toward your ideas. Instead of jumping to conclusions, ask what’s going on. You might say, “I notice you’re frowning. Is it related to what we’ve been discussing?” If the person expresses a concern, make sure you understand the degree of intensity, importance, or urgency of their disapproval. You might say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how frustrated are you about this?” or “How important is this to you?”

Accumulate; don’t react. If it’s the first time you’ve heard a certain judgment, become curious about the broader picture. Are you hearing this because this person is the canary in the proverbial coal mine and  is the first to say something? Or is this a single instance, best set aside until you hear similar comments from others?

Apply the criticism to your role, not yourself. We often mistake our role for ourselves. We take things personally that are not personal at all; they are a condition of the job we’re in. For example, the head of sales might find fault with the head of products — no matter who occupies that position. Instead of conflating yourself and your role, determine whether the criticism is about you or the issues and tensions your role naturally evokes.

Connect with your personal board of directors; don’t isolate yourself. When we’re reeling from criticism, we tend to withdraw from others. Instead, reach out. Cultivate a diverse group of six to 12 people who are invested in your success and who will tell you the truth. Contact the members of this personal board of directors, share how the negative comments affected you, and seek their perspective and advice.

Take care of yourself; don’t try to push through. If your colleagues’ comments are particularly painful, it might take a psychological and physiological toll. You may find it hard to sleep or eat well. During these times, carve out more time for yourself. Identify two to three small rituals or practices that help renew your energy. It’s important that these actions are fairly simple so that you actually do them. Some examples might be taking a three-minute walk outdoors to get some fresh air, connecting with a friend on your drive home, journaling for five minutes at night, or waking up each morning and thinking about one person you’re grateful for in your life. (Bonus points if you then send that person a note expressing your gratitude.)

After many long walks, I realized that even though I’d spent most of my life trying to be likeable, it was an illusion to believe that I would be universally beloved. To move forward as a successful executive, I had to develop a stomach for criticism — even if it meant a bruised ego. In the end, I talked to the people in my organization and acknowledged their various opinions. Then I clearly stated what the plan would be going forward and told the group that I hoped they would join me in working wholeheartedly toward the goals I had presented. Most of them did. Over time, I increased my resilience by following the steps above. I’ve learned to face the realities and benefits of diverse opinions and to value the parts of myself that others may criticize.


Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDxand has written for FastCompany.comInc.com, and Forbes.com, in addition to HBR.org. Follow her on Twitter.

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What Good Feedback Really Looks Like

According to a recent Harvard Business Review cover story, it’s rarely useful to give feedback to colleagues. The authors argue that constructive criticism won’t help people excel and that, when you highlight someone’s shortcomings, you actually hinder their learning. They say that managers should encourage employees to worry less about their weaknesses and instead focus on their strengths.

Our research and experience at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) lead us to a different conclusion: Feedback — both positive and negative — is essential to helping managers enhance their best qualities and address their worst so they can excel at leading.

There are several ideas in the article with which we agree:

  • Harsh feedback does not help people thrive and excel. Indeed, effective criticism needs to be delivered with respect and care. Frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and dampen motivation.
  • Positive feedback is critical for learning. People are often quick to notice what’s wrong, but it’s equally important to pay attention to and provide input on what is working to support development.
  • Telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach. You’ll foster more learning by asking questions that stimulate reflection and coaching people into exploration and experimentation.

However, we disagree with other points:

  • People are unreliable assessors of others and thus give feedback that is more distortion than truth. Feedback is never purely objective since it is delivered from a human being with a unique perspective. However, for a leader, knowing how others see and experience her is incredibly valuable since those people make decisions based on their perceptions—decisions about who to listen to, cooperate with, trust, support and promote.
  • Feedback about weaknesses creates a threat that inhibits learning. Research indicates that 360-feedback recipients who get unfavorable ratings tend to improve their performance more than others. And, in CCL’s work, we’ve found successful executives credit all types of potentially threatening events (e.g., horrible bosses, making a business mistake, being demoted, and firing employees) as key drivers of their development.
  • People should just focus on their strengths. Our work has shown that ignoring one’s weaknesses is one of the greatest contributors to individual derailment in organizations. No matter how well-tuned a leader’s strengths are, one unaddressed “fatal flaw” (e.g., arrogance, inability to build a team or difficulty adapting to a new context) can lead to failure — particularly if it is unacknowledged by the individual.
  • You can best help your organization by getting better at the things you are already good at. This assumes that everyone is already good at the right things — that they have the critical skills and competencies that organizations need to succeed. Our colleague Jean Leslie’s research demonstrates that this is rarely the case. In fact, she found that leaders are weakest in the four most important future leadership skills—inspiring commitment, leading employees, strategic planning and change management.

When you focus only on strengths, you lull people into believing there are no areas in which they need to improve. It also lets managers off the hook for fostering necessary — and sometimes difficult — development in their reports and co-workers, which ultimately compromise organizational effectiveness.

So, instead of encouraging people to avoid negative feedback, we should focus on how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimize the threat response. At CCL, we teach an approach to delivering feedback called Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) to address both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional and caring way.

Feedback providers first note the time and place in which a behavior occurred. Then they describe the behavior — what they saw and heard. The final step is to describe the impact the behavior had in terms of the feedback providers’ thoughts, feelings or actions.

Here’s an example: “In our staff meeting this morning when we were discussing strategies for funding the new initiative, you interrupted Jessica while she was talking and said, “That idea will never work,” before she had a chance to finish. This left me feeling disappointed I didn’t get to hear more from her, and I was intimidated about sharing my ideas with the group.”

Such feedback is not judgmental (“You were wrong to interrupt Jessica”), not generalized (“You are always interrupting people”) and doesn’t analyze the reasons the individual behaved as he did (“Do you have no respect for other people’s ideas?”). As a result, it is more likely to be heard and considered rather than defensively rejected.

By all means, we encourage organizations, managers, and employees to recognize and leverage strengths. But you ignore weaknesses at your own peril.


Craig Chappelow is a leadership solutions facilitator, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.


Cindy McCauley is a senior fellow, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.

 

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How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism

Most of us have been “feedsmacked” at some point in our life. In the midst of a meeting, an innocent walk down the hallway, or a performance review, someone delivers a verbal wallop that rocks our psychological footing. We looked at 445 such incidents when we conducted an online survey asking people about the hardest feedback they ever received.

Some of the comments were downright harsh (“Think about leaving — I need warriors not wimps” and “You only want to be right. You are manipulative. You don’t care about others”) and others were less intense while still direct (“When you lose your temper, it can make others feel less respected” and “You need to improve your emails by only stating facts and not making them so flowery or soft”).

Many respondents to our study were still haunted by a harsh comment they received decades ago. I know this feeling from personal experience. I still feel a tightness in my chest and a sense of profound dread when I recall an episode where a colleague who didn’t like the way I handled an email called me a “f—ing idiot” and threatened to destroy me.

My hunch was that those who received such high-octane criticisms were likely to feel worse than those who received gentler comments. But, surprisingly, people who received less severe comments reported being just as overwhelmed and upset.

I was also surprised that few in our study became combative in the face of criticism, regardless of its severity. In fact, close to 90% described their immediate emotional response with words like dumbfounded, flabbergasted, shocked, stunned, or numb and 40% described a “shame”-related emotion like: embarrassment, worthlessness, hurt, sadness, and self-doubt. A scant 15% reacted with feelings that focused on the other person: anger, betrayal, or violence.

Why would anodyne observations create just as much agony as scathing assaults? The answer is this: we all crave approval and fear truth. And critical feedback feels traumatic because it threatens two of our most fundamental psychological needs: safety (perceived physical, social, or material security) and worth (a sense of self-respect, self-regard, or self-confidence).

Let’s address safety first. There are times when feedback does include financial threats (“I’m going to fire you”), relational threats (“I’m going to leave you”), or even physical threats (“I’m going to hit you”). In these instances, fear is the right response. But our analysis of the 445 episodes people reported in our study showed that immediate threats are a rare exception. In most cases, it is our defensive, combative, or resentful response to feedback that puts us at risk more than the feedback itself.

Now let’s talk about worth. If learning truth is beneficial, why would its reception provoke shame, fear, and anger? Because we live with an undercurrent of terror that we aren’t worthy and feedback risks pointing this out.

Many in our study argued that feedback hurts worse when the messenger has malicious motives. In truth, motive is irrelevant. The reality is that most of us crave the approval of powerful people. Our secret hope is that their positive endorsement might finally quiet feelings of nagging inadequacy. But it doesn’t.

I’ve spent much of my life believing that the best way to help people receive and act on negative feedback is to help those who are delivering it to improve their message. But I’m now convinced I was wrong. Rather than focusing on saying things the “right” way, we need to all get better a finding truth in negative feedback, no matter how it’s delivered.

I’ve witnessed first-hand how people can do this by taking responsibility for their own safety and worth. For the past three years, I have studied and worked with a nonprofit called The Other Side Academy (TOSA) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Approximately one hundred adult men and women with long histories of crime, addiction, and homelessness live at TOSA in a self-reliant community that thrives on feedback. Their fundamental belief is that relentless exposure to truth is the best path to growth and happiness.

 

Twice a week, students engage in a process called “Games,” which is two hours of nonstop feedback. It can be loud. Vocabulary is sometimes raw and colorful. And a single student can be the focus of relentless attention for 20-25 minutes from as many as two dozen colleagues. Peers present you with evidence that you are dishonest, manipulative, lazy, selfish, or mean. There is little emphasis placed on diplomatic delivery of the message. Instead, they focus on helping the individual learn to “take their game.”

A few students react to their game defensively. They’ll withdraw, deny, or lash-out against those who are telling them things they don’t want to hear. But most don’t. They quickly learn that they are the primary source of their own safety. Reassuring themselves of their own efficacy is the fastest path to peace, and the best way to increase their self-efficacy is to scour the feedback for truth. The feedback is either true, false, or more often, a mix of the two. And if the truth is going to hurt you, it is more likely to do greater damage when you don’t know it than when you do. So, learning it is always beneficial.

What I’ve learned from the TOSA students is that we need to build our resilience in the face of criticism. Here are four steps you can try the next time harsh feedback catches you off-guard. I’ve organized them into an easy-to-remember acronym — CURE — to help you put these lessons in practice even when you’re under stress.

  1. Collect yourself. Breathing deeply and slowly reminds you that you are safe. It signals that you don’t need to be aroused for physical defense. Noticing your feelings helps, too. Are you hurt, scared, embarrassed, ashamed? The more connected you are to these primary feelings the less you become consumed with secondary effects like anger, defensiveness, or exaggerated fear. Some students collect themselves by consciously connecting with soothing truths, for example by repeating a phrase like, “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe.” or “If I made a mistake, it doesn’t mean I am a mistake.”
  2. Understand. Be curious. Ask questions and ask for examples. And then just listen. Detach yourself from what is being said as though it is being said about a third person. That will help you bypass the need to evaluate what you’re hearing. Simply act like a good reporter trying to understand the story.
  3. Recover. It’s often best at this point to simply exit the conversation. Explain that you want some time to reflect and you’ll respond when you have a chance to do so. Give yourself permission to feel and recover from the experience before doing any evaluation of what you heard. At TOSA, students sometimes simply say, “I will take a look at that.” They don’t agree. They don’t disagree. They simply promise to look sincerely at what they were told on their own timeline. You can end a challenging episode by simply saying, “It’s important to me that I get this right. I need some time. And I’ll get back to you to let you know where I come out.”
  4. Engage. Examine what you were told. If you’ve done a good job reassuring yourself of your safety and worth, rather than poking holes in the feedback, you’ll look for truth. If it’s 90% fluff and 10% substance, look for the substance. There is almost always at least a kernel of truth in what people are telling you. Scour the message until you find it. Then, if appropriate, re-engage with the person who shared the feedback and acknowledge what you heard, what you accept, and what you commit to do. At times, this may mean sharing your view of things. If you’re doing so with no covert need for their approval, you won’t need to be defensive.

It turns out that the misery we feel when “feedsmacked” is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Those who acknowledge and address this deeper issue don’t just get better at these rare startling moments of emotional trauma, they are better equipped for all of life’s vicissitudes.


Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.

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How to Deliver Criticism So Employees Pay Attention

In my college days I ranked among the top 10 women divers in the United States. I got that far not just because I worked hard — practicing every day in four-to-six-hour sessions — but also because I had an extremely tough coach who routinely offered both caring support and sharp criticism. Early in our relationship he explained how it would work: “When I stop yelling is when you’d better start to worry.” And I understood: Because he believed in me, he would push me — hard.

Strategies for coaching athletes don’t always work for executives trying to manage employees. But when it comes to delivering criticism, I do think some best practices translate. Used correctly, criticism can improve performance, enhance trust and respect, and advance the achievement of mutual goals. Used incorrectly, it can be toxic to a relationship.

How can you increase the likelihood that your employees will perceive the criticism you offer them as helpful and well-intended and be more willing to act on it, as I was with my diving coach? Based on my sports experience with him and my current work as an executive coach, I’ve developed four guidelines:

Engage the person in a specific solution. All too often managers offer criticism in general terms, leaving the receiver to guess what remedy is expected.

Good coaches are, by contrast, extremely specific: “Straighten your left leg” or “Be sure to spot the palm tree before you open your somersault tuck.” They encourage the athlete to problem-solve with them: “What felt off on that dive?” or “What could you do to get that leg straighter or start that twist earlier?”

Such an approach is equally effective in the workplace. Take, for example, the director of a large hospital who received complaints that a new manager was too abrupt in meetings and was failing to respond to requests in a timely fashion. Instead of taking the woman to task and explaining how she should change, the director explained the situation and asked her what might be done about it. She said, “It’s important for you to make good first impressions, but I’ve heard that some people think you’re too terse and not getting back to them quickly enough. How do you think you might change your behavior to shift those perceptions?” The manager suggested a few ideas and immediately implemented them.

Engaging employees in a specific solution ensures they’ll get it right next time, communicates respect for their opinions, and builds their confidence.

Link the criticism to what’s most important to the employee. My coach knew I wanted to please my parents. After all, they sacrificed a lot to allow me to pursue my dream of one day being in the Olympics. So, during diving workouts, if I was goofing off, all my coach had to say to get me focused was, “Do you think what you are doing right now is going to make your parents proud of you and get you into the Olympics?”

The same tactic can be used with employees. As an example, consider someone who cares about being respected by peers but is habitually 10 minutes late to weekly staff meetings and often blames her tardiness on her busy schedule. A manager might simply reprimand her — either nicely (“Please make more of an effort to be on time”) or sharply (“Do we need to get you a new watch?”). But a more effective strategy is to say something like: “How do you think coming in late affects your reputation with your colleagues?”

If employees see the link between the criticism and the things they care about personally, they’ll be more receptive to it.

Keep your voice and body language neutral. Coaches do yell sometimes; mine would bark at me from across the pool when I’d botched an easy dive. At times, managers can motivate with a raised voice and expressive gestures as well — to get across a we-can-do-better message.

But, ideally, workplace criticism is far more effective when delivered in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, with a relaxed facial expression and with neutral body language. That’s how the hospital director spoke to her new manager. (It’s also how my coach and I typically discussed how I could improve.)

An unemotional delivery sends a message that the criticism is simply part of doing business.

Heed individual preferences. My coach knew I liked to hear what he thought of each dive. I preferred that he be direct and to the point so that I had a clear understanding of what I needed to do differently.

Employees also have feedback preferences. One regional sales manager I know often accompanies her sales associates on client visits. Over time, she learned that some reps wanted her advice on their customer interactions immediately, while others preferred that she observe a day’s worth of calls and deliver comprehensive feedback the next morning at breakfast.

Early on, before your employees have a chance to do anything that requires criticism, ask them how they prefer to receive feedback. Should you give it immediately or postpone it to another time? Do they prefer an email or an in-person talk? If it’s the latter, should it be in your workspace, theirs, or a neutral spot?

A soon-to-be-published study conducted by the National Management Association and my firm found that 98% of managers believe it is important to be open and receptive to criticism, but that’s easier said than done. When bosses follow these guidelines, employees are much more likely to make good on the goal of welcoming negative feedback.

Deborah Bright is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., an executive coaching and training organization, and the author of six books, including The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/01/how-to-deliver-criticism-so-employees-pay-attention?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=16873889&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=982229614&spReportId=OTgyMjI5NjE0S0

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