How To Respond To Criticism From Your Boss
Everybody has an opinion. And there’s a good chance that your boss’s primary job is to have an opinion. Sadly not every boss is vetted like our online community of mentors.
And, as they say, criticism rolls downhill.
Ironically, as a born again entrepreneur, the hardest part of my “job” is fighting against obscurity. I was talking to a fellow entrepreneur who apologized for giving me feedback. In fact, I was flattered that she even cared to tell me what she was thinking.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
Feedback – even negative feedback – is critical to growth. I can get tunnel vision coding or trying to solve one little thing that I forget the bigger picture like, oh say, customers. It’s a necessary voice that I would prefer to ignore. And I do so more than I care to admit.
That’s why it takes someone outside of yourself to give you perspective. For better or for worse. But it’s also up to us to process it as adults. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier. Our innate animal instinct to negative feedback, especially from a boss, is fight or flight:
- Fight – defend our work and dismiss others in anger.
- Flight – shut down and let others walk all over us.
The truth is these are two sides of the same coin: hurt feelings. And as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. A truism that we can witness at the highest levels of leadership today.
So what can we do about it?
First, for the record, I believe the instinct to fight exists for a reason. It is the spirit that we owe our collective independence as Americans to. Similarly, the instinct to flee is one that has saved many of our ancient ancestors from being eaten alive by wild animals. These are good things.
The catch is that these instincts do not serve us so well for moments in between.
In my experience, it’s not for lack of response to criticism, but our over response. You do not need a bazooka to swat a fly. How we respond is and can be completely distinct from other people’s less-than-perfect communication style. Keep the two separate:
Criticism is never truth. It is only one person’s point of view. Let that sink in first.
2. Consider The Source
As much as criticism hurts, remember that it says as much about the person giving it than it does about your work. Respectfully, who is this person? Did he make the same comment last week? Are the two situations related? Is there a larger issue looming over the company?
Hurt people hurt people.
I need this reminder a lot when stress gets to me. Resonance frequency breathing has been proven to reduce anxiety and increase relaxation. And it’s easy: inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds. This works out to 6 breaths per minute if you prefer.
4. Ask Questions
Congratulations. If you’ve made it this far, you are ready to take on the criticism (note: not the critic!). The key here is clarity and specifics. When talking to a boss or a power-that-be, it can be helpful to tee up your response with caveats:
- I’m a little confused.
- Can I ask a few questions?
- I need help understanding.
- Forgive me, but…
Your goal here is more data to filter out the essence of their criticism. Communication is imperfect! And remember we can’t fix what we can’t talk about.
The more you know, the more you can filter.
5. Make A Plan
Once filtered, you may find a morsel of insight that you can actually do something about. It can take awhile. But it’s worth thinking about. What would it take or what would it look like to change this or that?
If you feel comfortable, draft an action plan. Then share it with your boss and commit to changes. Everybody makes mistakes. As a boss, there’s nothing more gratifying than to see someone on your team adjust, grow, and learn.
Finally, whatever it is and however bad it stings, just say thank you. The fact that somebody took time to disparage anything at the very least demonstrates that your work deserves attention. Because it does.
“How do I respond to criticism? Critically. I listen to all criticism critically.”
-Paul Thomas Anderson