4 steps to taking the sting out of criticism

I’ve been away from the office at a training course this week. We finished up a little early yesterday so I took the opportunity to log on at home to catch up with what I’d missed and prep for next week.

It wasn’t long before a member of my team clocked that I was back and gave me a call to fill me in on the week. She informed me that she’d had a challenging conversation with our programme manager who was concerned that we weren’t doing enough to fix a reoccurring block we have with one of the teams we work with to deliver the plans.

As usual, the situation is complex with polarised views – the block seems to be manifesting because one director is providing one instruction and two others, quite the opposite!

Still, the criticism really stung. So much so that, once I logged off, I poured myself a glass of wine and demolished a bar of chocolate. In an attempt to process this productively rather than bury it in a sugary-alcoholic haze, I also re-read Tara Mohr’s chapter Unhooking from Praise and Criticism from her brilliant book Playing Big.

Unsafe, Misunderstood and like a Fraud

Mohr talks of how criticism made her feel ‘unsafe, misunderstood or like a fraud’, as if her ‘talent had run out or her lack of […] talent had been exposed’.  She suggests that often as women ‘we don’t know how to deal effectively and easefully with criticism, with negative feedback. So we curtail our career ambitions to avoid receiving the worst of it’.

She goes on to warn us that ‘when we are petrified of criticism or in need of constant approval, we simply cannot play big’. It isn’t that we need to be impervious to others reactions – they are a useful feedback tool – but we must learn to become less hindered by them.

Why we are so affected

Mohr gives us a number of explanations for why, women especially, are so affected by criticism; it explains why I was so troubled by the programme manager’s dig:

We are relationship focussed – many women are relationship oriented and we often strive to maintain relationships through preserving harmony and connection.
We have a higher awareness of others’ reactions – many women pick up more easily on the silent cues around us such as facial expressions, body language and subtle cues.
We have a history of survival through likeability and social influence – for most of our history women were not able to protect themselves through physical, legal or financial powers. Likeability was our safety net.
Our ‘good girl’ conditioning – as children we were often encouraged to be ‘good girls’. We were expected to be nice; to not rock the boat or be angry, arrogant or aggressive.

So how can we be less hindered by criticism?

  1. Know that feedback doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback – All too often I have fallen into the trap of believing that if someone gets cross at me, it’s because of something I have done wrong. So many times it has transpired that actually it had very little to do with me and much more to do with the bad day they’d had.
  2. Accept that women who play big get criticised –The bigger the job, the higher we climb, the more we will be criticised. End of story.
  3. Understand that criticism hurts when it mirrors what we believe about ourselves – This is the biggie. Criticism at work hurts me as I still struggle to believe, 100% of the time, that I am good enough. Criticism causes my anxieties to snowball and before I know it I’m convinced I will get fired. And that plays into our very basic need for survival – after all without a job most of us would struggle to put food on the table.

So here’s what to do if you are struggling to deal with a critical comment:

  1. Remind yourself that the feedback tells you more about them than about you.
  2. Ask yourself if just 10% of this feedback were true, what part of it could you use strategically to improve your worklife. Let the rest go.
  3. Get some perspective by asking yourself how will you feel about this in a week/month or a year’s time.
  4. Breathe, take a walk, or chat it through with a trusted friend or colleague.

And if all else fails go to the park, play on the swings and catch some Pokemon.