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3 ways to flip workplace criticism on its head

Negative feedback can fuel productivity and build trust, experts say

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Giving a colleague some adviceTry to look at negative feedback from the perspective of your role instead of taking it personally (Getty Images/laflor)

It’s a new year, which means it’s time to set new goals and aspirations.   

In your professional life, this could mean mapping out a path towards a promotion or developing skills in a current role using the feedback received during a year-end review.

But what if that review was full of criticism, leaving you feeling deflated, unmotivated or even resentful towards your manager or team?

According to a 2019 Gallup survey, only 10.4 per cent of employees whose manager’s feedback left them feeling negative said they were engaged, and four out of five reported looking for other employment.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, experts say.

Here are three ways to flip negative feedback on its head.

1) DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY 

Try to look at negative feedback from the perspective of your role instead of taking it personally, suggests Alexander Kjerulf, expert in workplace happiness and founder and chief happiness officer (CHO) of Woohoo Inc. Avoid getting defensive and making excuses, he adds. 

“Remember that they’re criticizing your work, not you as a person,” he says. “You might say what you’ve learned and what you will do differently from now on.”

Employees who struggle to disconnect could take things into their own hands, asking their manager for feedback proactively, while mentally preparing for what they might hear, adds John Horn, chair of the board of directors at career-development organization CERIC.

“Go in with the mind that I’m going to hear some critical feedback and maybe it will all resonate,” he says. “Maybe it will all be true and there is some data to take away on [your] journey in that role.”

2) LISTEN CAREFULLY

Absorb and assess what is being said, ask for clarification when necessary and reflect on how the feedback relates to your role, suggests Kjerulf. Keep in mind that criticism can be constructive and a sign that your success is important to your manager, he adds. 

“Actually hear what is being said. Ask questions to make sure you understand the criticism fully,” says Kjerulf. “Unless proven otherwise, assume good intentions. Don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that the person criticizing you is ‘out to get you’.”

3) ASK OTHER PEOPLE

Seeking varying perspectives and feedback from other stakeholders, including teammates, clients and those who interact and work with you, can help, says Horn.

“From someone’s personal career development...feedback shouldn’t just be about yourself to yourself, or from your manager to you,” he says. “There should be a community…that you go to on a consistent basis for feedback on how you are doing, compare and leverage that toward goals you are looking at.” 

However, not all negative feedback is warranted, says Kjerulf. Look out for feedback that is overly negative or a critique that is beyond your fault or control. Negative feedback should be communicated in a private setting (not in front of others), in an environment and at a time where there is opportunity to listen and follow-up, he says.

“Unfair criticism or overly negative feedback is sometimes used as a tool by bad managers and workplace bullies to demean and control others,” he says. 

For those who feel they’ve been unfairly critiqued, adds Kjerulf, don’t shy away from reporting the incident to a manager’s superior or human resources. “Do not put up with this kind of attack. If you do, it will persist,” he says. 

BE A BETTER EMPLOYEE

Learn how to be a more effective listener, find out how to stay on top of digital communications without getting overwhelmed and boost your efficiency.


HOW TO DELIVER FEEDBACK


ACT IN THE MOMENT
As a manager, it’s important to address any issue, performance-wise or behavioural, with an employee directly and as soon as possible, suggests John Horn, chair of the board of directors at career-development organization, CERIC.

That way, he says, the issue is dealt with immediately without leaving time for the employee to foster bad habits, the team to feel resentful, or a client to become disgruntled. It also gives the employee an opportunity to change the behaviour without any long-term consequences. In other words, Horn adds, don’t wait until a year-end or annual performance review to bring issues up.

“When you give that critical feedback in the moment, it’s super concrete, and it’s going to be real for that person who is getting it,” he says. “It also spreads [criticism] out over the course of the year and allows them to course correct faster.”

RESPECT COMMUNICATION STYLES
Before entering into a feedback-based dialogue, discuss with your employees how they prefer to hear criticism, says Horn. Respect this style of communication, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach across your team, he adds.

“If there are people [on your team] who really struggle with critical feedback, you’ve got to figure out how to deliver that feedback,” he says. “The first way…is to be aware of their sensitivity to it so that it comes out in the right way.”

PASS THE REINS
According to Horn, managers will get more results if they allow their employees to take the lead. Let those who report to you guide the feedback sessions by inquiring about where they think they can grow and improve in their roles.

“Anytime you can get the person to surface their own growth area, their own critical feedback,…they are more likely to take ownership of the solution because their brain is the one thinking about it,” he says.

ADDRESS BEHAVIOUR
When addressing issues, focus on the negative behaviour and its impact on the work rather than a person’s character, says Horn. “You want to be really clear in the example of how their behaviour is impacting the team,” he says.

PUT IT INTO ACTION
Learn how to successfully have those tough conversations, and be the aspiring leader you want to be, with CPA Canada’s book, Show up like a coach, by corporate executive coach Jennifer Gervès-Keen.