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Why job success depends on the ability to take criticism – and what you can do as a manager

Posted by Deb Muoio

Aug 12, 2014 11:46:00 AM


From musicians and athletes to Nobel Peace Prize winners, business moguls and presidents, every professional is criticized about their work and their performance – and most will agree, begrudgingly perhaps, that they are better for it. It’s not easy to hear, but behind every critique lies a lesson. Those who are able to get past the harsh outer shell of criticism to the nugget of wisdom at its core will possess one of the major keys to success.

Research we conducted using the Sensitivity to Criticism Test (SCRT) reveals that employees who were more defensive in response to criticism scenarios on the test were also more likely to report lower levels of job satisfaction and to have poorer performance ratings.

We assessed people’s responses to criticism on six factors:

1)     Whether they experience defensive thoughts directed toward the critic (e.g. “People who criticize my work do so because they dislike me or are jealous of me.”)

2)     Whether they experience defensive thoughts directed toward themselves (e.g. “When someone criticizes me, I can’t help but think I really am incompetent.”)

3)     Whether they experience defensive emotions directed toward others (e.g. anger, bitterness, resentment, etc.).

4)     Whether they experience defensive emotions directed toward themselves (e.g. sadness, embarrassment, guilt, etc.).

5)     Whether they exhibit overt defensive behaviors (e.g. scowling, arguing with critic, threatening to quit, etc.).

6)     Whether they exhibit covert or passive aggressive defensive behaviors (e.g. purposely slacking off, secretly looking for a new job, ignoring criticism completely and not making any of the recommended changes, etc.).

Here’s what our study reveals: While women are more likely to direct their defensiveness inward (e.g. by taking the criticism personally; by being hard on themselves for not doing well), men are more likely to reflect their defensiveness outward, convincing themselves that the critic is wrong, and even going as far as to argue/disagree with the critique. Interestingly, one of the key factors that determined whether a person responded defensively to criticism was self-esteem.

When we assessed the role that self-esteem plays as it relates to the ability to take criticism, we found that those who become the most defensive are also more likely to have the lowest level of self-esteem. Whether a person responds to criticism by putting themselves down or being excessively hard on themselves (like the women in our sample did), or by fighting to protect their ego (like the men did), the result is still the same – the defensive people in general still have lower self-esteem than the less defensive people. Here are some tips based on different employee personalities:

The Tough Guys

How do these employees react to criticism?

  • Get angry, yell, or become verbally aggressive
  • Practice selective hearing; listen to praise and ignore criticism
  • May blame others for errors or performance issues
  • Defend themselves by reminding you of all the good they’ve done and all of their accomplishments
  • May make direct or indirect threats to quit (“You know; there are a lot of companies that would love to hire me.”)
  • Indifference - don’t think there’s anything wrong with their work or performance
  • Stubborn defensiveness – don’t think they need to change

How should you approach these employees when offering feedback?

  • Make sure criticism is done in private
  • Be firm and assertive yet tactful
  • Praise strengths
  • Let them come up with their own solutions for the issues you’d like to improve. For example:
o    Don’t say: “I am concerned about your behavior with other employees. People have been telling me that you are difficult to get along and work with.
o    Say this instead: “You are an ambitious and determined person, and expect nothing less from others. I like that you set this example. My concern is that sometimes, your intensity can rub others the wrong way and cause conflict. I know this isn’t your intention and that within you is the ability to be a really good colleague that others can look up to, or turn to for guidance. What solutions can you come up with to improve in this area?”
o    Don’t say: “I notice that you tend to rush through tasks sometimes and end up making mistakes.”
o    Say this instead: “I would like to put you in charge of quality control for your department. I want you to come up with a list of the most common mistakes that you and your colleagues tend to make, as well as the causes and repercussions. For example, I notice a lot of employees rushing through tasks and making a lot of preventable errors. Come up with a list of solutions we can implement to reduce these types of errors.”
  • Meet up regularly to assess and discuss progress

The Hurt Puppies

How do these employees react to criticism?

  • Criticism tends to take them by surprise; it may genuinely shock them to hear that you are not pleased with their performance
  • They tend to feel hurt, rejected, embarrassed, self-conscious, and insecure
  • Receiving criticism is one of their biggest fears

How should you approach this employee when offering feedback?

  • Make sure criticism is done in private, not in front of other people
  • Speak with tact and maintain a positive tone
  • Start by asking them to offer their opinion on their performance – what they feel they have accomplished, and areas where they would like to improve.
  • Praise their strengths
  • Reassure them - make it clear that you appreciate their accomplishments and hard work, and recognize their value.
  • Introduce criticism as untapped potential: “You are a great employee and I know you have a lot to offer. You have a lot of potential that I want to bring out, so here are the performance goals I would you like you to accomplish before the next evaluation…” Just make sure to check in regularly to evaluate the progress of development.
  • Make it clear how they would benefit from improving in the areas you mention (e.g. “These are the type of skills we look for when considering someone for a promotion.”
  • If possible, make improvement a group effort. Have all employees in the department undergo a refresher training session.

The Quiet Consenters

How do these employees react to criticism?

  • They are likely to be reserved, and will accept criticism with little input (or fight).
  • This could also mean that they won’t speak up even if they do disagree or have something to add.

How should you approach this employee when offering feedback?

  • Be warm, positive, and tactful
  • Make sure to tactfully ask for their input: “Are there areas where you would like to improve? I want to help you be the best employee you can be, because you are valuable to this company. What can I do to help you? What do you need from management to help you succeed?”
  • Make it clear that you recognize the person’s strengths and values – list their accomplishments.
  • Structure criticism as stepping stones on the path to becoming an even better employee. “You have so much to offer to this company, and I want to help you become a well-rounded employee. Here are the areas I would like to work on with you…”
  • Make performance goals clear and offer a step-by-step plan to accomplish them. For example: “I think that while your time management skills are satisfactory, they could be even better. Here are some techniques I would like you to implement…”
  • When you start seeing improvement in the areas you mentioned, bring it to their attention; let them know that you’ve noticed their hard work and desire to improve. Offer regular encouragement and praise.
  • Reassure them that your office door is always open if they have questions or need advice, and that you are more than happy to offer guidance.
  • Boost their confidence – make it clear that you have recognized their hard work and their accomplishments.

If you’re interested in using the SCRT (Sensitivity to Criticism Test) or other tests for HR purposes, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

Want to learn more about using psychological tests for hiring, leadership development, career development or talent retention? Download our free eBook loaded with down-to-earth information about psychological testing for HR purposes.

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Topics: HR Tips, Employee Engagement, Mentoring, Employee Development, Management Skills, Coaching, Employee Relations

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