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How to properly handle criticism at work

 An unhappy employee. (Courtesy)

You're called into your supervisor's office and you have a feeling you're about to receive some unpleasant news.

For the next ten minutes, you receive a dressing down for an assignment that you were involved in that did not go well.

The problem is, this was a team assignment and you strongly feel that you handled your part well, and that the failure was not due to your action or inaction.

So what do you do? Do you get defensive and explain who dropped the ball? Or do you quietly take it in and sulk for the next few days?

For most people, criticism can be a painful thing to deal with, whether in your professional or personal life.

The first reaction, usually visceral, is to get defensive and deflect the criticism. For all the advice we receive on handling criticism like a professional, our bodies scream the exact opposite when we are getting a dressing down, especially if it is in front of our peers.

Calm down

I know a Human Resources professional who used to say that in the heat of the moment, you should hold your breath and count. Preferably to 10.

This ensures that you don't react instinctively and defensively. It also helps to stem the emotions that might be running through your system and if you're prone to waterworks, gives you some time to compose yourself.

Hear what your boss has to say and take some time to reflect on it. Defending yourself only serves to make you come off as making excuses.

Instead, thank them for the feedback and come up with a plan of action to ensure you do not miss the mark again.

For example, if you are working with a tea member that dropped the ball, devise a system of checking in with this team member and escalating in case the requests or timelines are not adhered to.

It's not personal

Lisa Quast, author of 'Your Career, Your Way' proposes taking a different tack. Unless you have proof to the contrary, criticism at work is not personal.

But the severity of the criticism can sometimes leave you feeling as if the punishment far outweighs the crime.

In this case it could be that your boss just got a dressing down from their own boss and is only passing on the anger.

Or they could be experiencing some other kind of frustration totally unrelated to work.

Yes, we would all like our bosses to be the kind of leaders who have a strong sense of self awareness and who do not allow their emotions to cloud their judgment. But this is not always the case. Some bosses are just bad bosses who have low levels of emotional intelligence.

However, if you are regularly facing tantrums and criticism that you have proof of being unfounded, it may be that you're the subject of bullying which is wrong.

The question is how to approach or resolve the behaviour. Do not try to confront the bully by yourself, rather go through HR and ask for the conversation to be kept confidential until you come up with a resolution road map.


For criticism or feedback to have the desired result, you need to embrace the growth that comes with it.

This means being gentle with yourself and not beating yourself up. Avoid over analysing what the other person said as this will only make you resentful.

This applies to both the workplace and non-professional relationships.

Kevin Hall, an organisational researcher based in Cape Town, cautions that the person giving the feedback or criticism could be uncomfortable and unable to express themselves in a succinct way, leaving some things lost in translation.

For this reason, it is important to repeat the underlying request or action points back to them in a way that ensures you're both on the same page.

More feedback

Next, if you get feedback about certain behaviour on your part, find out if it is hindering you from making progress in your role or career.

The best way to do this is by speaking to peers or seniors who you trust and who have your interests at heart.

So, if the concern is that you become argumentative in conversation, ask your peers if they have noticed this and if it rubs people the wrong way.

Always remember to ask the person giving the feedback if they have specific ideas of how you can handle this challenge in the future.

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