Criticism at work: can you handle it?

by Kayla Crum on Feb 22, 2024

We’ve all experienced that terrible moment at work: someone criticizes you, out loud, maybe in front of others. You flush with embarrassment. Your stomach twists. If you’re in a leadership position, criticism may hit even harder than it did earlier in your career. One piece of feedback can leave you questioning your ability to manage your team effectively.

In our work with thousands of leaders over the last three decades, we have seen firsthand how crucial it is for leaders to be able to accept criticism, discern what’s constructive, and continue to take effective actions for their teams. The most successful leaders view criticism with curiosity and are willing to adapt.

But we recognize that most leaders don’t start there. If you struggle to move on from criticism, it may help to assess your innate reaction and consider working on growth in this area. When critiqued, do you…

1. Freeze

Leaders with this response may feel overwhelmed with feelings of shame and shock when criticized. Negative feedback blindsides them and leaves them feeling inadequate. They have trouble coming up with any words to say in response.

If this is you, there are ways to combat the “deer in the headlights” effect. The first key is to attend to your body. Practice deep breathing during calm moments so that your body knows what to do automatically when criticism comes around.

Additionally, have one or two positive affirmations that you repeat to yourself daily, so you can pivot to them internally when needed. Something like: “This moment does not define my entire career” or “I am more than one person’s opinion of me.”

Finally, it may help to script a few appropriate “comebacks” ahead of time. Having a note on your phone with statements like “Thank you for your honesty” or “I’ll have to take time to think that over” are great to reference in moments of stress.

2. Fight

In contrast, leaders with an innate fight response may get visibly angry when criticized. This response may involve saying things you regret later, rigid body language, or juvenile actions like throwing papers on the floor.

If that sounds familiar, you are not alone. Many leaders struggle with an innate fight response when criticized. It’s important to see this as an opportunity for growth, not a problem to be hidden.

The first thing to work on is control of your body. Similarly to leaders with a freeze response, deep breathing and meditation outside of the office can translate to better bodily control during tense moments at work. Be aware of what you do with your hands and your facial expression. The more relaxed you keep your muscles, the more relaxed you will feel inside.

Second, remember that time is your friend. It’s possible that the person criticizing you is being unjust, but at the moment of impact, you are not in a fit state to determine that. Practice saying things in the mirror to yourself like “I’ll consider what you said” or “That’s a new idea to me.” In crucial moments, these can buy you some time to calm down.

3. Flight

Finally, some leaders have an innate flight response. Flight responses can include a physical removal of oneself to a bathroom or other private space, or a metaphorical withdrawal in which previous statements are redacted in order to keep the peace.

In positions of authority, this response is often perceived as the most embarrassing, because captains are supposed to go down with the proverbial ship, not run away. However, just like freezing or fighting, there are steps you can take to cope.

You probably know by now that the first key is deep breathing and paying attention to bodily cues. Do you get tearful when criticized, prompting you to flee? This is not inherently bad, but taking a few deep breaths may keep the tears at bay long enough for you to make a coherent response before stepping away.

If you tend to metaphorically remove yourself by trying to reverse the offense, be careful not to undermine your leadership. Statements such as “Thank you, I need time to think that over” or “I appreciate your input, but the decision has been made” are potential responses to consider.

Teamalytics can help

Self-reflection is difficult emotionally, and sometimes it’s unclear if one’s perception of oneself is even accurate. That’s why at Teamalytics, we’ve designed unique and validated self-assessment tools to aid leaders in their quest for growth. For over thirty years, we’ve helped leaders just like you identify their strengths and constraints so they can move forward with more confidence and clarity.

If accepting criticism in the workplace is a sticking point for you, download our free guide, “Know What it Feels Like to Work with You: The Elusive Key to Effective Leadership and Team Assessment.” In it, you can learn more about how our tools can revolutionize the way you receive and incorporate feedback.