Sticks and Stones: Criticism In and Out of the Workplace

Criticism hurts. It can come from a superior at work or from a stranger on the internet with a keyboard and a loud opinion. It can be about your work, your looks, or even your personality.  It can ruin your whole day and topple your self-esteem for a lifetime. It’s easy to go on the defensive when you’re on the receiving end of such criticism. When we fear the judgment of others, both hurtful words and helpful critiques alike can seem a bitter attack.


I spent the better part of my 20-some years of life concerned with the opinions of others. The fear of judgment and disapproval was crippling. What was I so afraid of?  Words can be hurtful, yes, but they are just words. It’s impossible to control what a person will say, but it is possible to be in control of the way you internalize, process, and react to criticism. Here’s what I do now.


Keep Calm and…

Step back from the situation. Your first instinct might be to respond and/or defend yourself, but resist the urge; do not respond until you've gathered your thoughts. Buy some time by responding graciously with a polite, generic response (i.e., “I appreciate the input! It gives me something to think about.”). Address the issue again after you’ve had a bit of time (and space) to think on it.


Source and Value 

There are two types of criticism: constructive and destructive. Constructive criticism comes from a positive place and is meant to help you better yourself. Destructive criticism is meant to tear you down. It can be harder than you might think to distinguish between the two. Not all constructive criticism is delivered gently and not all destructive criticism is delivered harshly. Set aside the tone (especially if the criticism is in email form) and focus on what is actually being said: is there something to be learned from the critique or are they just hurtful words?


Shelf Your Ego…

And acknowledge you might be wrong. This is the most crucial and the most difficult! If you’ve identified the criticism as constructive, allow yourself to acknowledge that the person offering criticism, no matter how harsh or poorly worded, may have a point. It's good to be confident in yourself and your abilities, but it’s also important to accept that there will always be someone who knows more than you do on one subject or another.


You Can be the Ripest, Juiciest, Peach in the World

And there is still going to be someone who hates peaches. That said, take the time to think and see if you still disagree with the criticism offered. If you do, stick to your guns. It is impossible to please everybody, and at one point or another you’ll need to decide what feels right to you and go with it. Live by these wise words frequently “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” (And let me tell you that line is timeless).


Never Forget 

You have the power to turn these critiques into learning experiences or opportunities. Besides the fact that someone who takes the time to offer constructive criticism that helps you improve is being generous to do so (and it’s not easy to criticize carefully and constructively, BTW), you’ll also learn how to (and not to) offer criticism to others. You’ll learn things like: beginning a critique with “you might consider” instead of “you should” makes it gentler to the recipient, criticism is a two-way street and co-mentoring is actually a thing, and what it feels like to be on the giving end of criticism received poorly. Keep these in mind and let your potential shine.

Last Updated: March 7, 2016
About the author

    Alexandra Hoeflicker

    Alex is a Tucson-raised, Austin-based brunch aficionado. She enjoys a solid cup of coffee and browsing used record stores.