How to Handle Criticism at Work

For many years I have served as a consultant to business owners and CEOs. I consistently find that all professionals, no matter their rung on the corporate ladder, struggle with rejection. This is true even when it is dispensed with maximum constructive feedback and minimum potential for hurt. Conversely, it is also true that accepting it with grace and as an opportunity for growth can be hard for even the most open-minded.

Experiencing rejection in the workplace (especially after being fired or harshly critiqued) can be wholly demoralizing. Negative emotions are overwhelming, making it difficult to process clear-cut criticism. It’s similar to receiving harsh disapproval from a partner or friend and can be life-altering. The key to overcoming a brash blow to the ego is handling the situation calmly.

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It’s important to employ emotional self-control in order to avoid an angry or hostile response. Even if it stings, it is never beneficial to express impulsive anger in a work environment (or a personal one). Take time to process and accept the outcome. Recognize the sinking feeling will diminish in time. It is essential to view the critique as an opportunity to self-reflect, grow and learn in order to sidestep repeat offensives. Remember that rejection and criticism do not define a person (though it may feel that way at the time). Even the harshest rejection is only a short moment in the grand scheme of things. Most importantly, criticism actually presents an opportunity for change. It might feel harsh, but the lessons learned from tough criticism are the ones most likely to result in making permanent, positive life changes.

Doling out rejection requires the same amount of tact as accepting it. In fact, many would choose receiving criticism above being the bearer of bad news. The thought of negatively impacting someone’s life (or at the very least hurting their feelings) can be daunting. For the message to succeed, criticism should never be delivered from a place of anger or accusation. A calm demeanor will result in more articulate and sensitive communication. It is even possible that once anger subsides, constructive criticism will be more productive than all-out rejection (such as employment termination).

Once it is apparent that “a talk” is needed, offer the criticism as soon as possible. Resist the urge to put discomfort over confrontation. Waiting days or weeks can be tempting, but causes the truth to become blurred, making it difficult to have a constructive conversation. Observing special occasions is the exception. Harsh criticism around the holidays, before a vacation or a birthday should be avoided when possible.

If it is terrifying to imagine being the “bad guy,” consider practicing. This will ensure the feedback is dispensed in a calm manner and the communication is clear, constructive and sensitive. Consider the recipient’s feelings—balance honesty with kindness. Be prepared with specific details and examples since vagueness can cause frustration. Finally, don’t be surprised if the critique is met with anger or tears. Remain calm, and notwithstanding the circumstances, communicate compassion while remaining clear that the feedback itself does not change.

dr. susan bartell

dr. susan bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. She also speaks throughout the country on a wide range of topics to help individuals and groups improve emotional and physical health and life balance.