Leadership

10 steps for dealing with criticism

Criticism can be tough to handle, especially for analytically inclined IT pros. Alan Norton offers some advice for weathering critical remarks.

I have noted during my career that IT engineers often respond negatively to criticism. There are a number of reasons for this. We may be trying to hide our insecurities and lack of knowledge, especially if we're inexperienced. We may only hear the message as negative. We may fail to engage the wonderful thinking processes we have been gifted with. Or we may just be too lazy to consider constructive criticism. Ironically, put the same IT engineers in a conference room and they have no problem criticizing your systems design. To test your sensitivity to criticism, ask yourself how receptive you were to the critical words of your immediate supervisor during your last performance appraisal.

I am not going to tell you that dealing with criticism is easy. On the contrary. Analytical thinkers are convinced that their way is the only way. I have seen it all too often in my own family when a discussion amongst the analytical thinkers soon becomes contentious. But it doesn't have to be that way. Follow these 10 steps to get a better grip on the unwanted and unsolicited critical words hurled in your direction.

Step 1: Consider the possibility that you might be wrong

"Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion." -- Blaise Pascal

Before you can accept and properly deal with criticism, you must admit the fact that there is always room for improvement and that you are not perfect. Only the perfect can disregard all criticism. I may not know you, but I do know that you are not perfect. It follows that you have seen, and will continue to see, your fair share of criticism - so please read on.

Think wrong before you are wrong.

Step 2: Consider the other point of view

"Don't criticize what you don't understand, son. You never walked in that man's shoes." -- Elvis Presley

Through experiences, we gain wisdom. Since it is impossible to experience everything life has to offer, consider each person as a repository of unique experiences and lessons learned just waiting for you to mine. If you do not understand the criticism, consider the possibility that the events experienced by the criticizer may have given him or her wisdom that you do not possess. With the right attitude, your own point of view might be changed for the better.

Regard, but don't discard.

Step 3: Consider the source

"We hate to have some people give us advice because we know how badly they need it themselves." --Anonymous

It is human nature to consider most criticism as derogatory. Before jumping to conclusions, though, you should consider who is giving the "advice." It is easy to misunderstand the nature of the criticizer. Analytical thinkers, for example, are wired to recognize invalid arguments, mistakes, and bad information. It's what they do, so you shouldn't be too surprised when they offer you their "helpful advice."

Pay attention to criticism from your friends and loved-ones. Recognize those who will not be offering constructive criticism before you waste one gigasecond of brain time. Some people, by their very nature, offer unhelpful advice or criticism. It's wise to recognize that fact and accept that there is little that you can do to change their behavior.

Separate those who indicate from those who pontificate.

Step 4: Listen

"If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear." -- Mark Twain

It is also human nature to dismiss criticism and let it go in one ear and out the other. It is so much easier than having to try to understand the "critical" point being made. Listen to or read the comment containing the criticism carefully. I often have to reread a paragraph before understanding the point trying to be conveyed. "Listen" with more than your ears. Important information can be derived from the tone of the words and the body language of the criticizer. And it's much harder with oral communication. You need to listen and respond quickly by thinking on your feet, and you can do that only when you give the speaker your full and undivided attention.

Listen also to your gut. It will tell you when criticism has touched a raw nerve.

Step 5: Don't respond emotionally

"Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Regardless of whether the criticism is valid, a defensive attitude is unprofessional and irresponsible. You may not like the "helpful advice" that has been handed to you. We all too often want to respond to criticism with a knee-jerk defensive attitude or with a verbal attack of the criticizer. Lashing out with an angry emotional response like, "You are a clueless buffoon" may help you feel better, but it's unwise -- especially if said to your boss. Defensive, angry emotional responses are almost always regretted later when the heat of the moment has passed. After all, professionals who are secure in their abilities let their work do the talking for them.

There is a reason why your parents told you to count to 10 before responding. The time allows us to engage the brain and respond thoughtfully instead of emotionally. Thomas Jefferson once said, "When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred."

Reflect, but don't deflect.

Step 6: Throw out derogatory criticism

"If I care to listen to every criticism, let alone act on them, then this shop may as well be closed for all other businesses. I have learned to do my best, and if the end result is good then I do not care for any criticism, but if the end result is not good, then even the praise of ten angels would not make the difference." -- Abraham Lincoln

There are two basic types of criticism, constructive and derogatory. Before you can respond correctly to criticism, you must separate criticism with merit from criticism of no value. Only the obviously malicious statements should go into the "derogatory" bucket in this step.

Criticism from these behavioral types can almost always be put into the "derogatory" bucket:

  • Armchair Archie -- Second guesses after the event
  • Back Seat Bertie -- Not responsible but offers "helpful" tips anyway
  • Bamboozle Bambi -- Snows them with a blizzard of meaningless words
  • Complicated Cuthbert -- Offers solutions that are more complex than a Rube Goldberg machine
  • Conformist Concetta -- Critical of eccentric behavior outside the "norm"
  • Hopeless Harry -- The eternal pessimist
  • Obvious Olivia -- Points out the obvious
  • Omniscient Oscar -- The know-it-all who tells you wonderful, irrelevant facts
  • Pernicious Percival -- Intentionally tries to do harm with criticism
  • Repetitious Repete -- Repeats criticism already expressed, typically in a forum
  • Silly Sally- - Offers ridiculous solutions
  • Wrong Way Willie -- Always points you in the wrong direction

Distinguish the character from a character.

Step 7: Recognize constructive criticism

"Every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration. Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought." -- Margaret Chase Smith

It is not as easy to recognize constructive critical statements about you or your work as you may think. Communication is complex, and your sensitivities and prejudices work against the proper deciphering of the message.

Six types of messages can be messages of constructive criticism (Table A).

Table A

Types of constructive criticism.

As you can see, the intended message can be very different from the message received. Constructive criticism is or is not in the eye of the beholder. If you do not recognize constructive criticism for what it is, you will most likely discard it.

Step 8: Acknowledge and accept the truth

"Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self evident." -- Arthur Schopenhauer

You may properly recognize constructive criticism, but without acknowledging and accepting the truth in the message, you will almost certainly ignore it. Sometimes the truth hurts, but that does not necessarily make it invective.

Concede the painful truth before the truth becomes painful.

Step 9: Act on constructive criticism

"Criticism always follows worthwhile action. The opposite is seldom true." -- Torley Wong

If you follow the above steps but do not act, you have wasted an opportunity -- and you might be on a collision course with disaster. You may need to swallow your pride and change your plans. Yes, it is true; even the best of us are wrong at times, and it takes mature people comfortable in their own skin to admit when they are wrong.

Act but don't react.

Step 10: Learn from criticism

"Don't mind criticism. If it is untrue, disregard it; if unfair, keep from irritation; if it is ignorant, smile; if it is justified it is not criticism, learn from it." -- Anonymous

We can all learn from criticism, even when it is not well intentioned. You may not be able to use constructive criticism to change work that has already been completed but you can certainly use it in the future. The next time a similar situation arises you can avoid the behavior that spawned the original criticism.

Learning from criticism is better than learning from failure.

The bottom line

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." -- Winston Churchill

Since IT is full of analytical thinkers, it's important to learn how to best dish out and respond to criticism. Make sure your unsolicited words are helpful before engaging the language center of the brain and consider carefully, before speaking, how the message will be received. Ambiguous or unclear criticism will almost never be received well.

Failure to respond correctly to constructive criticism can be costly. Engineers of all types should note that failure occurs all too often at the most important step, step 1. All steps are important, but when engineers and managers fail to consider the possibility that their intended course of action might be wrong, the remaining nine steps become moot. From the Titanic to the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, warnings have been given, and ignored, leading to loss of life. Software engineering errors also cost lives and are estimated to cost $60 billion annually in the U.S. alone.

Responding to criticism in a professional manner will reduce the possibility of any hurt feelings among you and your peers. Criticism may be a bitter pill to swallow, but necessary for growth beyond one's own preconception of self. A world without criticism might be more comfortable, but it would also be less fulfilling and a lot more dangerous.

About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

19 comments
ssharkins
ssharkins

How about one on giving criticism... how to share information and ideas in a constructive and positive manner.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

If you think IT Pros don't take Criticism well try it on the CEO. From my experience they take it much worse and get really [b]"Narky"[/b] when you point out their shortcomings. The problem here isn't the position individuals are in but the Individuals themselves and the more [b]"RIGHT"[/b] they they believe they are the more extreme their reaction. On the other Hand my first reaction when I'm approached by anyone is [b]"God No What Have I done Wrong this Time."[/b] Maybe years of [b]SWMBO[/b] telling me that I can not do anything correctly to her standard has taught me the futility of trying to think that it's possible to do anything better that what someone else thinks things should be done. Doesn't matter how wrong they are they always have the best way to do things no matter what. :D Of course when someone compliments me on how well something is working after I've fixed it I tend to say [b]"No Problem I'll Fix it Right Next Time or I'll try harder latter, of We can fix that for you."[/b] ;) OH and BTW I got a great laugh out of this [i]"that there is always room for improvement and that you are not perfect."[/i] You've never meet [b]SWMBO[/b] obviously as she'll constantly tell you just how [b]"Perfect"[/b] that she is. My now standard Response is [i]"Yes Dear I know. You must be right because I heard you tell me. Sorry I ignored your Directions I know you're always right. You told me so yourself so it must be true.[/i] All said in rapid succession without time for her to interrupt. as to others I just say What's your problem and what can I do to help you. :0 Col

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

appears to have warned off the 'flame and deconstruct' crowd. You've shown us all how to deftly avoid unwarranted criticism: anticipate and refer to it. Double bonus.....

barrynovak5
barrynovak5

Just had to chime in to thank you for a very thoughtful, well written post about a subject we all can learn a great deal from.

MichaelCarr
MichaelCarr

Thanks for taking the time to write extensively on this very important aspect of life.

oeflynn
oeflynn

Some constructive criticism - I think you meant a nanosecond rather than a gigasecond in point 3. A gigasecond is slightly more than thirty-one and a half years, which is (I am sure) not what you meant!

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

...criticism. I have seen that in certain students over the years. Some people exhibit a hubris they often didn't even know they had when being taught (especially when it comes to polishing and fine-tuning a recently-learned skill or technique). They start absorbing 'corrections' (more so the minute ones) as 'criticisms'. Since the aspiring master of a skill or technique will be exposed to many of these---the teacher stops, re-shows and explains what needs to be corrected, and dwells on that part a bit more before the student tries again---it doesn't take long before certain types of people begin registering 'personal attention/repetition of material or technique' as harassment(!)....and criticism. It's as though they forget that they're PAYING someone who not only knows the subject, but has the patience and tedium-immunity to show THEM how. I think it's hidden pride; if so, we all must have it to some degree or another. I'd suggest that if you're being genuinely helped and it seems to you to be 'criticism', remember that you're not being implicitly called a nincompoop by your teacher repeating her/his self for the umpteenth time. To us, it's just another day in Paradise, and since any concept or technique worth learning is one you'll not get right the first time or the fifth time, don't feel belittled when you're told, "That wasn't quite right; watch....now try it again", for the fifteenth time. Excellent article, Alan; thanks (the notes were a bonus)!

sboverie
sboverie

Sometimes there are more than one correct way to do things. This is sort of like which leg to you start with when you put your pants on? Some will start with the right leg and some will start with the left leg and some are less rigid and use either depending on circumstances. The criticism that you are doing it wrong may just be that the other is more rigid in thinking there is only one correct way. Another example is if you ask people how high can they count on their fingers, the usual answer would be 10. It is possible to count differently and be able to count to 99 (Like an abacus but using fingers on one hand for the 1s column, the thumb counts as 5, fingers on the other hand are for the 10s column with the thumb count as 50). Another way is to count in binary which ends up with 1024. Which is the correct way to count on your fingers?

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I'll be the first to admit that I am guilty of not accepting criticism well - even to this day. Back in 2006 I began participating in the alt.comp.hardware Usenet group, not because I was an expert, but because I wanted to learn more about hardware. I was so overly sensitive to criticism of one of my posts that for a period after reading a critical response I suffered from a form of "analysis-paralysis". When I finally got my thoughts together, I realized that, more often than not, my post was technically correct - and I could back my statements up with facts. I suppose it was only natural being mostly a neophyte in the world of computer hardware, but facts, even from an amateur are just as valid as those coming from the more experienced poster. Never, ever let someone bully you with criticism to change your mind if you have your facts right. Some people are timid in their thoughts and need to have a little more faith in their beliefs. Today, I have a much healthier response to criticism. As a writer, criticism comes with the territory. However, a recent cross-country trip with my family showed that more work is needed. In my article, 10 curses of the analytical thinker, I listed 10 traits common to those with analytical minds. Failure to accept criticism could have been on that list. Analytical thinkers often do a poor job when confronted with the criticism of their peers and those in positions of authority. This quote didn't fit in the article but it is too good to ignore: "I am sorry to think that you do not get a man's most effective criticism until you provoke him. Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness." Henry David Thoreau Criticism is almost always a thoughtful response to something that you have said or done and rarely a personal attack. Step 1: Consider the possibility that you might be wrong - I have met those on the job who thought that their work was a gift to mankind but it was usually their insecurity speaking. Step 2: Consider the other point of view - Walk a mile in my shoes, brother. Step 4: Listen - It happens quite often that you, patient reader, offer criticism to my meanderings and I neither understand nor seriously consider the point that you are trying to make. When I have the patience to reconsider the criticism and put myself in your shoes, I almost always "get it." You may not understand the words until you are willing to "listen" carefully. Step 5: Don't respond emotionally - It is a mistake of analytical thinking to focus on the bitterness and not the truth. Step 6: Throw out derogatory criticism - Why is it that the back seat driver always sits in the front seat? Step 7: Recognize constructive criticism - It may seem obvious but before you can respond properly to criticism you have to first recognize the situation. For example, failing to recognize the truth in a warning from your doctor may mean you do not take it seriously enough. Analytical thinkers are gifted with the ability to analyze the situation and determine the merits of the argument. Even so, an emotional outburst can happen to the most analytical of us. You can overanalyze. As dahowlett said. "...and on the personal criticism front I realise that what I do is over analyse the way I feel when someone tries to tear my pet theory apart. Something of a vicious circle." Step 9: Act on constructive criticism - Hubris must be set aside by acting in a manner that initiates a course change. You don't have to act on constructive criticism. You may find your weight quite acceptable even after warnings from your doctor. Of course, as with all constructive criticism, failing to act has its consequences. In the case of the Challenger disaster, the Thiokol engineers, including Roger Boisjoly, were the heroes warning about the adverse affect of the cold temperatures on the O-rings. According to Wikipedia, "the engineers were overruled by Thiokol management." Still, more could have and arguably should have been done by Thiokol engineers. After the warning about the O-rings was given to NASA, NASA asked for data confirming the O-ring risk at cold temperatures. Thiokol managers finally regarded their data as inconclusive. For a good summary of the cause of the failures of the two shuttles, watch the History Channel's Modern Marvels - Inviting Disaster 3, Space Shuttles. It is mentioned in that documentary that "...opinions dissenting from NASA's upper managerment were not tolerated. The result was that ideas and potentially useful criticism were being squelched." "But Alan," you may say, "helpful advice and ideas aren't criticism." The back seat driver might actually believe that warning the driver about the light turning red ahead is helpful. But in the eye of the beholder, his driving abilities and eyesight are being questioned. In the workplace, you don't need someone who sounds critical questioning your ability to do the job when you are stressed by the complexity of the work and the pressures of time constraints. It has been said that "confidence is very sexy." And while that may be true in the world of human psychology, misguided overconfidence can lead to disastrous results. There have been "plenty of engineers who were "confident in their design but tragically mistaken costing countless lives over the centuries. We will never know how many disasters have occurred due to hubris and arrogance that may have been avoided with a little more consideration to the possibility that the decision maker might be wrong. I now know enough about most of you that I can expect a number of clever criticisms to be leveled my way. I know it is impossible for some of you to resist! Then, it, the posting containing the criticism, will garner dozens of up-votes and become the top rated post. So, you clever, intellectual giants out there, let's hear your best! As always, I will be popping in occasionally to answer any questions and to provide the odd bit of verbiage when/if I have something semi-intelligent to add.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

...that you have mastered "Step 3: Consider the source", and in that process learned how to keep the peace. :-) Those "Narky" CEO's and many others like them are too worried about their image. I don't have that problem. I shot my image all to hades years ago. :-) Love your amusing banter, Col. Thanks for the smile!

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

You may be onto something there. It has been very quiet in here. In the "Bonus notes" I wrote: "So, you clever, intellectual giants out there, let's hear your best!" Hands down, you are most clever of all.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Barry, thank you and Michael Carr both for taking the time to write the feedback. Knowing that there are readers like you out there gives me a little extra incentive to write the "next" article.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I wish I could say that I intentionally included the error, but I didn't. In an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons, I commend you on your tactful constructive criticism and note that the message type = "Correction". 31.7 years, roughly, would be a long time to sulk over worthless criticism! :-)

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Thanks for sharing a teacher's point of view and the kind feedback.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Good point. As you say, his way of doing business may be better for him than for you or just done out of habit. It's true that there is more than one path to success but it may be worth listening to the criticizer to determine if their path might be simpler for you.

brf531
brf531

"It appears incontrovertible that understanding failure plays a key role in error-free design of all kinds, and that indeed all successful design is the proper and complete anticipation of what can go wrong." - Henry Petroski in "Design Paradigms"

sboverie
sboverie

The O ring problem at Thiokol is an example of group think, the managers were acting like mind guards to keep everyone in agreement with NASA leadership. I forgot to say that the article is good information. Thanks.