Steps to Handle Criticism at Work

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated May 16, 2022 | Published December 12, 2019

Updated May 16, 2022

Published December 12, 2019

Handling criticism is a difficult but necessary part of being an employee. In the workplace, you will frequently have to hear and digest criticism from a supervisor, manager or other coworkers. To use their criticism to improve, you need to know how to listen, understand and apply their suggestions. In this article, we define criticism and explore some steps for how to handle it well in the workplace.

What is criticism?

The first step to handling criticism at work is understanding what effective criticism looks like. Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments. The goal of constructive criticism should always be to improve the productivity or performance of the person being criticized.

Criticism can come through official channels, like a one-on-one meeting with higher management. It can also happen more organically, like a team member suggesting improvement on a project. Regardless of the source, it can benefit you greatly to know how to handle criticism of all types, as it may not always be constructive.

Related: The Importance of Positive Feedback

How to handle criticism at work

Criticism is necessary for a healthy workplace. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that constructive criticism may be the best way to get the attention of someone who has become unproductive or complacent. Accepting criticism at work can be an important step toward increasing your efficiency and professional success. Here are some steps for how to handle criticism at work:

Control your reaction

Everything about your reaction matters, as your response can be taken as an indicator of your maturity and professionalism. Also, keep in mind that your facial expressions and body language are just as important as your words in how you react to criticism. Between verbal and nonverbal communication, most people consider nonverbal to be more truthful.

Related: Nonverbal Communication Skills: Definition and Examples

The first reaction you should express is no reaction. Before you say anything, take a deep breath and pause. This seems simple, but it can prevent you from doing or saying something you will regret. It also gives you a moment to control your body language and facial expressions.

If the criticism is completely unexpected, you may need longer to process it. Ask the person if you can think about the conversation for a little while and then talk with them again later.

Try not to take it personally

Many people see their work at a job as an extension of themselves. It is easy to take criticism of your work performance personally. Try to separate yourself as a person from your duties, and remember that mistakes are no reflection of your character. Criticism is usually aimed at your work, not you.

Process the criticism

Try to avoid excuses and defensiveness. Instead, articulate what you plan to do differently to improve. Then, follow through and make those changes. Of all the things you can do in reaction to criticism, this is the most indicative of your ability to process it appropriately. It shows others that you are mature and self-aware enough to handle criticism.

Give yourself some grace

Everyone makes mistakes, and no one knows everything. No matter how good you are at your job and how much experience you have, there is still always more to learn. If you see criticism as a way to help you identify those areas and move forward, you will get the best possible outcome of the criticism.

Show appreciation

Though it may be difficult in that moment to get the words out, you need to acknowledge the person’s honesty and their delivery if it was kind and constructive. Remember that giving criticism is often as uncomfortable as receiving it, so the conversation was probably awkward for the other person as well.

Show humility

Ego can lead you to react badly, especially to poorly delivered criticism. Remember that there is most likely some truth in it, even if it’s hurtful. Your ego will try to protect you by discounting the criticism, not because it is inaccurate, but because of poor delivery. Remember, if you respond humbly, you may gain a valuable learning opportunity.

Apologize conservatively

A detailed explanation or an elaborate plan to make amends where none is requested only makes the conversation more awkward. Also, if delivered poorly, the words may come out sounding defensive. Apologizing too much also can bring the uncomfortable spirit of that conversation back repeatedly and rarely adds anything beneficial to the interaction.

Do not dwell on the criticism

The temptation is often to replay the conversation over and over in your mind. You may second-guess every word and wish you had said something different. However, this only distracts you from the lesson you could learn from the experience. Throughout your career, you will likely have more than one of these experiences. Give it the time it is due, and then move on.

How to change the way you feel about criticism

While you may never enjoy receiving criticism, there is usually at least some truth in the assertions. Try these tips to learn how to turn the negative into something positive:

  • Think the best of the critic. When a coworker or supervisor gives you feedback, think of it as a favor they are doing just for you. That person was interested enough in you to take the time to help you grow and improve in your chosen field. After all, to develop in your position, you have to know where you have room for improvement. If someone wanted to harm you, they would see your errors and say nothing.

  • Be self-aware. Defensiveness is natural, and you may feel genuinely hurt by critical comments. Give yourself some time to move past that. If something seems too painful, think about why that may be. This could be a reminder of another time in your life when something else was similarly hurtful. Understanding that is the key to getting past it.

  • Listen. Focus on listening carefully to the words spoken. Remember that active listening means paying attention and processing, not using the time while the other person is talking to prepare your response mentally. If you do not understand something, ask clarifying questions. Take notes so you can recall everything later. 

  • Respect negative criticism. Rather than seeing positive feedback and constructive criticism as opposites, learn to see them as equals. Though one feels much better to receive than the other, both represent an opportunity to grow. Positive feedback helps you develop by reinforcing a particular behavior, while criticism teaches by discouraging a behavior. Generally speaking, any criticism is better than no feedback at all.

  • Learn. Though you may feel like you are losing confidence or credibility while you are listening to critical feedback, do not lose sight of the lesson. You have something to learn from every experience, even the negative ones and the mistakes. If someone is masterful in delivering constructive criticism, take note of the words they chose and the tone of voice. Watch the nonverbal cues and body language. This is valuable information for the day you are the one delivering the critique. You can learn about yourself through this process as well. Think about how you react and how criticism affects your self-confidence.

Related: Active Listening Skills: Definition and Examples

How to navigate your workplace’s feedback culture

A feedback culture is created by employers who understand the power of clear and regular communication. These companies dedicate resources to establishing an environment where employees learn how to give and receive feedback appropriately. This intentionality pays off; companies with a feedback culture typically have a higher rate of employee engagement and less turnover. The creation of a feedback culture does not happen accidentally. It requires practice and training to learn how to take criticism at work, but there is also an art to giving positive feedback. A feedback culture recognizes the importance of both.

A feedback culture is important because it provides employees with regular and consistent information about how well they are performing their jobs. When that does not happen, the employees are probably not going to give the employer any healthy feedback either. This can result in a false sense that everything is fine, and no improvement is needed. Productive and invested employees may leave the company because they do not have a gauge of whether they are meeting expectations or not. Constructive criticism is an important vehicle for bringing these problems to the surface.

Related: Best Practices to Giving Constructive Feedback

How to handle criticism that goes too far

As long as the criticism is meant to help you improve, it can be helpful and constructive. However, if the person delivering the words is using them to be demeaning and insulting, it’s no longer constructive criticism. Some examples of this behavior are personal attacks or blaming you for something that is not within your control.

The difference between constructive criticism and bullying can be hard to see. Constructive criticism is meant to help someone improve some aspect of their life. This is the sole purpose for the critique. Bullying, on the other hand, is intended to humiliate someone or damage their reputation. The bully wants to belittle or discredit you in front of others. The bully has no intention of helping you improve in any way.

Understand that bullying is a type of abuse, and it shares three characteristics common to every type of abusive situation:

  • It involves a power imbalance. In the workplace, your boss may be harassing or abusing you via criticism of your performance.

  • It is repetitive. The bullying behavior is aimed at the same person again and again.

  • It is intentional. Bullying involves threats that the target believes the bully is capable of carrying out. The goal of bullying is to harm the target in some way.

If you are experiencing these things in the workplace, you should not tolerate such behavior. Document everything each time a bullying incident happens, including the date and time and any witnesses. Contact your human resources department or follow whatever protocol your company has set forth for filing a complaint. If your coworkers have been victims of the same bully, consider making a joint complaint so that management understands the scope of the problem.

Handling criticism at work might never be enjoyable. However, it is possible to learn to make the best of it. Listen carefully and develop a plan for improvement based on what you hear. Do not take criticism personally, but see every interaction as an opportunity to grow as a professional. If you can be mindful and follow these tips, you may find the path to further growth and success in your career starts with a word of constructive criticism.

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