Seek High-Quality Criticism to Fuel Career Success

Seek High-Quality Criticism to FuelWant to grow your career to the next level?

Ask someone to tell you what you’re doing wrong.

Although nobody likes criticism, it can be a really valuable way to pinpoint improvement opportunities and understand how you are perceived in the workplace. The information gained from thoughtful criticism can be the catalyst for growth. Even if the criticism focuses on something you can’t fully change, you may be able to either create a more compelling story about it. Take this NYC litigator who was told her squeaky voice prevented people from taking her seriously; she can’t discard her voice, but she could take vocal lessons on having a more “masculine” speech pattern and intonation.

Beyond the direct value of the information received through criticism, there is also value in experiencing moderate amounts of stress. Although extreme stress (especially over long periods of time) can be physically and emotionally harmful, smaller amounts of stress might promote positive growth and change. Research on what makes a stressful experience a growth opportunity shows that some factors include a feeling of control over the future and a sense of optimism. Seeking the stressful experience of job-related criticism could lead to growth if you think of it as a way to fuel improvement.

To really use criticism to grow as a professional, you need to consider both external processes (where you get the criticism) and internal processes (what you do with the criticism).

External Processes: Seeking Criticism Effectively

Yes, seeking criticism. You should be periodically asking others for feedback on your work. An obvious reason to do this is simply to have the information. Another, which may help motivate you to ask if you’re shy about it, is that it is a lot easier to hear criticism early than later when it’s turned into an actual problem.

A table tent from one of my company offices, and a nice way to get positive feedback.
A table tent from one of my company offices, and a nice way to get positive feedback.

What does asking for criticism look like? I find it’s easiest when you make it very specific. For example, if you’ve just given a presentation, ask a few colleagues who attended what they thought. Ask, “What could I do better next time?”  You can also ask for feedback on written deliverables, your performance in a meeting, or your communication on a project (as a few examples).

As for who you should ask for criticism, I would choose people whose perspective you trust. Who is doing really well at work and seems respected by peers and management? Who has the skills or career you’d like for yourself? These people are more likely to have meaningful or reliable feedback since they’ve performed well themselves.

I also like to ask people who come from different functional roles in the company. I work on our science team, and know that sometimes the stuff that geeks me and my teammates out is less than thrilling for other audiences. If I give a presentation for a general audience, it means a lot to me for someone on the sales team to say the information was accessible and interesting, since it’s easy for me to go down a rabbit hole where it’s not.

Internal Processes: Interpreting Criticism For Meaning

A recent NY Times editorial identified making meaning of criticism at work as particularly difficult for women. One issue is that women tend to receive different feedback from men, often including comments on their personalities or appearance. I won’t get into that here. The other issue, more relevant to this post, is that women may not have an attitude that lets them take the useful information from criticism without feeling hurt.

I sympathize. I personally find it very hard to hear criticism without feeling that pang of inadequacy. Even though I know that’s not what was intended, it doesn’t stop my immediate emotional reaction.

So I’m working on taking a minute or two to feel the feelings, and then move on and process the feedback more analytically. In doing this, I ask myself:

  • What kind of category does this feedback fit into? Presentation style, communication style, relationship issues, something else?
  • What could I do differently next time? (If the answer is nothing, then this feedback may not really be useful.)
  • What do I need to do so I’m prepared to improve?
A twist on asking for feedback on your own performance--instead, ask for lessons learned or best practices, then think about how to apply them to your own work.
A twist on asking for feedback on your own performance–instead, ask for lessons learned or best practices, then think about how to apply them to your own work.

By categorizing the feedback and linking it to specific actions I might need to take (either straightforward changes like updating a slide or more comprehensive ones like getting training in a new area), I try to pull as much usefulness out of the feedback as possible.

Note that not all criticism will be useful. The feedback mentioned in the NY Times that women sometimes receive around personality or appearance is a great example. Just because someone offers you feedback doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid. If you do receive feedback that seems questionable, you might want to ask a trusted colleague to weigh in privately.

Handling Useless Criticism

Several years ago, I was part of a customer meeting. I had been asked to attend by one of our senior leaders to represent our team, and I took the responsibility seriously. A new colleague who I hadn’t previously met was also attending the meeting. I spent most of the time listening, taking notes, and posing the occasional question. Later that night, at the customer dinner, this new [and now former] colleague pulled me aside and offered a barrage of unsolicited feedback on my conduct in the meeting. There were lots of gems, but the upshot was that I was “humorless and intimidating.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

I thanked her for her observations and returned to dinner, shaken. I ended up confiding the story to a few colleagues who reassured me that I was neither humorless nor intimidating. I also learned that this same woman had given unsolicited feedback to others, much of it . . . special. Knowing this let me brush off her words.

Me being humorless and intimidating with @emilyazari and other colleagues at a work event.
Me being humorless and intimidating with @emilyazari and other colleagues at a work event.

But here’s the interesting thing. Even though her feedback was off-base, it did get me thinking about my demeanor and how I want to brand myself. I was particularly offended that she called me humorless, because I think I’m pretty funny and I like to joke with people. I realized after this conversation that I value my sense of humor at work. While I still think I was behaving appropriately in that particular meeting, I want to be a person who can laugh with colleagues.

The intimidating piece, well, I don’t know what to do with that.