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How to Deal with Criticism


You've likely heard people boasting “I am my harshest critic.” And it seems to make sense -- who better than them to know when they’ve missed the mark and when they could have done a better job?


I propose, though, that the most productive role we can play towards personal and career growth is not that of our own harshest critics but of gatekeepers of criticism.


CRITICISM AS A WARNING SIGN

To an open mind, criticism is a vital tool for growth because it creates opportunities for reflection and self-improvement. Discerning individuals won’t necessarily assume that every criticism is valid or equally useful, but they will be willing to consider disapproval as a sign that they may have failed to meet their potential. This is important, since people’s expectations from us vary with our capabilities and potential -- at work, for example, we would not expect the same performance from an intern as we would from a seasoned worker. Criticism suggests that although we were expected to perform at a certain level we failed to do so.


You’ll object that not every criticism is valid and you’d be right. We all know bosses, colleagues and family members who are trigger-happy when it comes to expressing disapproval and reproach. This is why being a good gatekeeper is so important.


EFFECTIVE GATEKEEPING I: SEPARATING WHEAT FROM CHAFF AND SCREENING OUT NEGATIVITY

Responding to criticism productively involves evaluating its merits without self-deception and without regards for its source or delivery style. Do apologize if necessary and explain yourself, but accept that there are varying communication styles and do not enter into discussions on semantics even if you believe that it’s not accurate that you’ve “never” done a particular task as expected or that you’ve been asked something “twenty times.” You may also find yourself at the receiving end of a message that mainly seeks to channel someone else’s stress, frustration, insecurity or negativity, but just because it was thrown at you, do not pick up (intellectually or emotionally) the negativity that may come your way.


Instead, stay focused on the message’s content. Evaluate it deliberately, honestly and dispassionately, and retrieve whatever you may find useful to learn from and grow. When receiving criticism, shooting the messenger – as distasteful as some messengers may be -- is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.


EFFECTIVE GATEKEEPING II: READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Being a good gatekeeper requires:


  • humility to react constructively while somebody points out our shortcomings,

  • discernment to evaluate the merits of the criticism,

  • intelligence to understand what needs to get done, and

  • resolve to take corrective action if needed.

The challenge for individuals in organizations, particularly as people move up a corporate ladder, is that relationships become much more nuanced, conflicts often less overt, and criticism and antagonism more subtle. Effective gatekeeping requires the ability to read the environment for events that signal criticism implicitly. For example, an executive or colleague may not show up at a series of meetings you are running, or you may be asked to call in at a regular decision-makers’ conference meeting rather than attend in person. In addition to any explicit feedback you may gather, you will need to read between the lines and notice what is not happening and what is not being said too, as when you are denied opportunities for more responsibility, when you are not recognized for substantial achievements, or when your manager is passive when you request her help to expand your professional network.


EFFECTIVE GATEKEEPING III: PROACTIVITY AND SELF-CRITICISM

Good gatekeeping also applies to self-criticism. A good gatekeeper will operate with a mindset of periodic self-evaluation directed towards personal improvement.


I interviewed many of IBM’s most senior leaders to find out about their success habits, and regular self-evaluation was a recurrent theme.


  • They carry out periodic (as often as weekly) reviews of their schedule to understand how time could have been used more effectively, and incorporate that learning in schedule planning for the weeks ahead.

  • They make deliberate evaluations of missteps within success stories, to pick up lessons learned. The excitement of success often blurs the errors that were made along the way and fast-paced environments increase the tendency to move on quickly onto new things.

  • They perceive failure not as a career-dooming event, but as something to analyze and learn from.

  • They are proactive in identifying their own weak points, and in searching for opportunities that will bring them outside of their comfort zone to close important skills gaps. For example, they’ll bring people together to solve problems no one has solved before, or learn an entire new subject area to increase their relevance within the organization.

In short, successful gatekeepers are acutely self-aware and vigilant of how their actions impact others, whether others make that known or not.


You can decide what to do with information that comes your way, whether it is accurate or inaccurate, and whether it comes in public or in private, tactfully or bluntly, constructively or with malice. It’s entirely in your hands whether to get upset or discouraged at the disapproval, or to evaluate its merits and see how to grow from it.


By being an effective and proactive gatekeeper you can become your best critic, objectively and with self-compassion accepting responsibility for your own missteps, and at the same time taking action and making progress towards becoming your best self.


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