How to Take Criticism Like a Champ

Find the actionable message and ignore the rest.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

Feedback helps us grow and get better. Needs lead to actions, actions lead to results. Feedback tells us how well the actions are creating results that meet our needs. Then we can adjust—or continue—our actions as appropriate.

Some feedback is nice and objective. If the cake tastes good, we remember the recipe. If it’s too dry, we make a note to not bake it for so long next time.

Feedback that comes from another human can be extremely subjective. Even when there are clear performance-based outcomes you can measure objectively, the methods can be open to subjective interpretation and projection. The best feedback focuses on how you can build on your strengths and overcome your weaknesses.

Not everybody knows how to give feedback correctly. Instead of praising and encouraging, they criticize and discourage. They probably aren’t doing it intentionally and there may still be something actionable behind their sentiments. The highest-performers learn to hear what they were trying to say without letting their words get in the way.

We love hearing nice things about our job performance. Compliments feel good. When someone tells you something positive, take it as reassurance that you’re doing a good job, but don’t let it go to your head. If you kick back and start coasting, there’s only one way to go—downhill.

Praise reaffirms our strengths. These are things we should keep doing. You can still fine tune and make adjustments, but you’re heading in the right direction.

Feedback addresses our weaknesses. It tells us how we can improve. It holds up a mirror for us to see how others see us.

Even when properly given, feedback can be tough to hear sometimes. If we think we’re doing well, it can be rough to hear that we could be doing better. Think about that for a second, though. There’s no conflict between doing well and getting better. We may have an association between the words “improvement” and “deficiency”, but it’s a false association. (I remember “Needs Improvement” evaluations in swimming; it was a polite way of saying I wasn’t good at that—yet.)

Giving feedback properly is a skill that many people haven’t mastered yet. Instead of holding up a simple mirror, they hold up a funhouse mirror that gives you a distorted view of how you’re doing.

If they’re genuinely trying to be helpful, hear them out. Their delivery may not be the best, but they can see something. Figure out what they’re trying to say and thank them.

If they come in with unsolicited and harsh criticism, they’re not worth listening to. Maybe they’re jealous of the position you’re in. Maybe they’re intimidated by the progress you’re making. Maybe they‘re just having a bad day.

Ignore them.

Save your attention on the people trying to help. Spend your energy following their advice. Study the greats. Figure out what it takes to be successful and do those things.

You’re not going to figure it out on your own. You need good solid feedback, the humility to listen to it, and the resilience to implement it.

Question: How do you find the actionable nugget in someone’s not-so-constructive feedback? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.