It may take the form of an annual performance review, or perhaps it’s an impromptu come-into-my-office-so-we-can-discuss-a-few-things conversation. But no matter what shape it arrives in, critical comments from your boss can be hard to digest. The good news is that criticism can actually help you in your career—but only if you know how to handle it.
When those first few words of criticism are handed down you may feel the urge to panic. But criticism doesn’t necessarily mean that your job is in jeopardy or that your boss thinks that you’re incompetent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “Generally, when an employee is about to be fired, a boss won’t even bother giving criticism,” says Valerie Streif, senior advisor for job search firm, Mentat. “Instead, [she’ll] be silent on issues until the employee is let go.” Streif notes that criticism indicates that your bosses want to see changes from you in the future, which means that they still intend to see you working around the office in the weeks and months ahead.
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Have a Plan
You can even look at criticism as an opportunity to obtain insider information about how to impress your boss, says Tarah Keech, corporate business consultant with Tara Keech Consulting. But this golden opportunity to make changes to your performance won’t amount to much if you’re not adequately prepared to receive the criticism.
Keech notes three key points for getting the most out of the experience:
First, learn all you can about the gap in expectations. Ask for specific examples of how your performance was not up to standards and for recommendations or examples about how you can improve.
Second, you should ensure that your boss knows that you’re open to making improvements. It never hurts to simply say, “I’m ready and willing to do whatever it takes to improve. How can I restore your confidence that this is being managed well?”
The third, and most crucial component of the process, is actually delivering the change. Request a timeframe by which your boss would like to see improvement, then make sure that the changes get made!
Keep Your Emotions in Check
It all sounds easy, but sometimes the most difficult part of listening to criticism is preventing your emotions from taking over. Crying happens and so do flaring tempers, defensive attitudes, and an urge to tell your boss what you really think of her—none of which will score you any points in an office environment.
If you do anticipate receiving criticism during a meeting and know that your emotions may get the best of you, Mikaela Kiner, executive coach and CEO of UniquelyHR, recommends giving yourself permission to just listen during the meeting. Then arm yourself with a simple one liner like, “Thank you for sharing this with me, I’ll need some time to think it over.”
You can then make an appointment to have a discussion with your boss at a later date, after you’ve collected yourself. It’s also perfectly OK to ask for a break to give yourself time to gather your thoughts, says Kiner.
Agree to Disagree
Sometimes bosses get it wrong—completely wrong, and Kiner believes that it’s OK to disagree with the criticism, as long as you take a little time to assess why you really object to the comments.
“Is it because the feedback stings, or is it one-sided or factually incorrect?,” says Kiner. “It’s appropriate to clear things up with your boss if she has the facts wrong….[but] if the facts are off [and] the feedback is accurate, focus on how you’re going to improve.”
If you think that your boss is way off base, Keech recommends responding carefully and strictly stating fact-based details. By keeping your responses calm and professional, and listening to everything your boss says before you begin your rebuttal, she’ll be more likely to hear your reasoning without bias since you didn’t start out defensively, says Keech. She adds that, “you’ll have demonstrated your respectability and maturity with your willingness to hear and receive criticism even if it wasn’t applicable.”
Make a Choice
It’s not right, but the fact is that sometimes people in positions of power decide that they don’t like you and they want you gone. And they may use performance criticism (nitpickingnit picking over every little thing that you do) as grounds for your dismissal. Streif notes that an absence of advice about how to improve your performance coupled with personal attacks and grossly exaggerating small situations are all signs that your boss is just trying to get under your skin.
Finding yourself in this situation means that you’ve now got a choice to make. You can either stay at your job or dust off your resume and search for greener pastures.
But even if you are planning your escape, just remember that you’re not safely out the door yet. Therefore, Jon Minners, career advice blogger and senior marketing manager at Vault.com, recommends that you maintain your same sense of professionalism toward your boss after you’ve received the criticism. There’s no sense in angering someone who may know people that have the ability to further your career down the line.
He also recommends resisting the urge to slack off while you’re searching for your new job. “Continue to work hard,” says Minners. “ Make them miss you when you’re gone.”