What’s your reaction when someone says,“May I ask you a question?” I’ll be honest. My gut response these days is a hearty “No!” Sure, I recommend saying yes when it comes to opportunities and challenges. The problem is, few people need your permission to ask how you became so skilled at your job or if you were always a talented tennis player. No, they ask if they can ask you a question because they know they’re about to say something truly horrid. When you agree, they’re likely to ask something along the lines of, “Why are you so timid during meetings” or “Have you gained weight recently?”
Office environments can be battlefields of critiques. Some are helpful, some are cruel. The most pointed take up rent-free space in our heads. Separating the wheat from the chaff is challenging. When you encounter unfair criticism at work, what do you do?
Check Your Sources
The person delivering the critique matters. If you’re just the latest target of a constant critic, it probably isn’t vital that you address the issue. If the criticism was delivered by a supervisor or highly respected peer, then it’s more significant.
Your cubicle neighbors probably don’t have an inside track to C-Suite gossip. If they did, they’d occupy a corner office. Your mentors will criticize –– it’s part of the role. Their notes should come from a place of helping. It’s never easy seeing my work marked up with red corrections and multiple comments. Yet I’d have a hard time listing all of the editors who have improved my writing over the years. Some of them didn’t even have “Editor” in their job title –– several elementary school teachers come to mind.
That’s not to suggest that you can’t learn from your peers. You can and you should. It’s just criticism that comes from a place of jealousy is harmful to both you and the critic.
Take a Step Back
When we are verbally attacked, most of us instinctively place a few extra feet between ourselves and the attacker. Chances are, all your evolutionary fight or flight responses are bubbling. Resist the urge to fight back. Take a deep breath and utter two very important, very tiny words: “Thank you.” Admittedly these may not be the two small words that first come to mind. It’s just saying them serves multiple purposes. First off, if the critic is cruel or out of line, when you express gratitude you’ve disarmed them. Second, simply expressing gratitude will help you feel better. Plus, those two words buy you time.
Limiting your response forces you to really listen rather than spend mental energy coming up with the “right” reaction. If you have paper handy, scribble a few notes. Then tell the critic you’ll think about what they said and will check back if you have questions.
After that, get away from the situation as gracefully as possible. When you are calm, take a moment to see if the criticism was valid. If you’ve heard the same thing from different people, it likely has merit. Are there things you can do to alter your behavior? Are there steps to take that will improve your performance? Even lone critics can be right –– if you generally respect the person they are worth listening to.
Don’t Be Derailed
Most of us love to play our greatest hits over and over in our heads. Unfortunately it’s not a Taylor Swift earworm (although “Shake it Off” is awesome advice). Instead, it’s the negative comments we heard from our parents, our peers, and now our co-workers. Changing your internal dialogue is vital. One suggestion that has worked for many is to write down whatever is bothering you. It could be “you aren’t talented enough to run the division” or “you don’t have the legs to get away with those shorts.” Whatever it is, scribble the comments on a piece of actual paper. Then physically put it in a shoebox which you should store in the closet –– ideally out of reach. It may sound silly but for many the physical act really helps.
Not all criticism is benign. If a co-worker’s criticism crosses into the world of isms –– racism, sexism, ageism, and the like –– you need to take action. Speaking to your supervisor or HR is important. If someone is saying offensive things to you, chances are they’re doing it to others.
It’s not easy dealing with critics. By responding with quiet grace and thoughtfulness, you’ll find yourself better equipped to appreciate helpful advice and discard what doesn’t work.