Dealing with Criticism at Work

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 26th April 2016

Dealing with criticism at work is a challenging area for many leaders, especially ones who are still fairly new to the role. So, how do we normally respond, and how can we change our approach to get the best out of a difficult situation?

The wrong way of dealing with criticism at work

It’s tempting to respond emotionally to criticism or negative feedback. Many people react by defending their action or decision, and seeking to prove the critic wrong.


In the longer term, however, this is rarely helpful, and can indicate to others a degree of immaturity, an unwillingness to change, and an inability to accept the views of others.

Simply telling the other person they are wrong, or reiterating your position, is most likely to create two entrenched positions with little room for common ground. More than anything else, this is likely to damage relationships and create schism. Criticism can sometimes stir up feelings of resentment; if this is the case, take a look at our post on how to be professional with someone you don’t like.

The value of taking criticism on board

The confident leader will seek to understand feedback, accepting that it may be valid (at least from the perspective of the other person), and that it would be wise to reflect on it. The sincerely meant feedback of others is one of the most valuable sources of reflection we have, and is an important part of being mindful of how we and our actions are perceived.

Even if you believe the criticism to be untrue or inaccurate, it is felt to be valid by the critic, and therefore reflects the truth as they see it. Often, the most incisive insights can come from others giving unvarnished feedback on you and how you behave. It is unhelpful to fight against it or defend your position, when you might learn a lot from analysing and reflecting on why they feel that way.

Thinking about the needs of others

Most leaders can stand to learn a lot about taking the needs of others into account, and about behaving in ways that deliver the best overall result for the organisation, not just for them as an individual.

Listening to feedback is a great way to start doing this, and one of the best immediate actions to take when receiving negative feedback is to seek more information. The responses “that’s interesting, can you tell me more about why you think that?” or “I hear what you are saying: tell me more so I can understand” are typically very effective in gaining insight into the perspective of others, and perhaps also in helping you to modify your approach to get a better result in future.

These responses indicate a willingness to learn, an enthusiasm for improvement, and a desire to meet the needs of others: all valuable attributes for a leader, and responses that will typically build and improve relationships.

In our professional leadership and management programmes, we emphasise the need for leaders to know themselves, know how they impact on others, and learn how to adapt their natural behaviour and style to achieve a better outcome for the greater good. This is a key aspect of engaging leadership, and an advanced skill for the contemporary leader that is well worth practising.

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