Everyone’s a Critic

Crystal Washington of Houston says she always welcomed feedback as a way to help improve her job performance. But one year, a piece of criticism in her annual review threw her for a loop.

“An assistant director of sales said I didn’t socialize with other people in the office enough and every time she came around I was on the phone with a client or researching on the computer,” recalls the marketing strategist who worked for a hotel management company at the time.

In response, Washington says she started dreaming up ways she could become more of the social butterfly in the office without slacking on her daily duties. “But then I stopped and thought about it,” says the 28-year-old about her proposed action plan. “My job performance was good. My clients were happy. I was bringing in the revenue. I did this checklist in my mind and said [to myself], ‘This criticism isn’t valid.’”

Criticism or constructive feedback can be a valuable way to receive information about yourself from others. After all, “we’re not always aware of our own blind spots,” says Stephanie Chick, a San Diego-based professional coach and author of Deliver the Package: Simple Truths to Help You Set Your Genius Free (The Genius Group L.L.C.; $14.95; Read “What Were You Thinking?” Motivation, January 2009). But, as Washington discovered, it’s important to be able to discern when to take someone’s well-meaning advice to heart or with a grain of salt. Likewise, when you provide feedback to others, you want to be sure you’re providing a helpful hand rather than an unnecessary (and/or unsolicited) opinion.

The Critic’s Corner

When you’re on the receiving end:
Note the source. Is the person offering the criticism experienced in the matter at hand? If it is coming from a reputable source, such as someone in a position of power or authority within the organization, “you definitely want to listen because he or she may have the ability to influence your career progression,” says Chick. When Washington couldn’t reconcile her supervisors’ feedback with her own career values, she left the firm and went on to start her own.

Gauge your reaction.
Chick recommends you think twice before discarding criticism you may adamantly believe is unwarranted. There may very well be something of use within it. She says, “Often when we hear something that we are opposed to, it’s something that’s true and we’re just resistant to that truth.” So, at the very least, approach the dialogue from start to finish with an open mind.

Check your inner value system.
“Every feedback has a potential benefit, but it’s not necessarily going to be a
benefit that you’re interested in,” says Judi Cinéas, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and life coach in Palm Beach, Florida. Someone’s well-intentioned goals for you may not be the goals you have for yourself. Cinéas says if their feedback won’t get you where you’re trying to go or if the person seems to have ulterior motives, it’s OK to toss it.

Before you offer constructive criticism:

Make sure it’s timely. Criticism is only helpful if the person receiving it has the time to mentally process it and an opportunity to change or tweak their behavior or efforts, if necessary. If you want to harp about something that happened once six months ago, don’t, says Chick. The longer you wait, the more likely your critique will not resonate with the person(s) or situation it’s in reference to.

Be detached from the outcome. Constructive criticism should be offered for the welfare of the recipient, meaning you shouldn’t be vested in whether that person follows your advice or not, says Chick. If you are emotionally attached, your criticism could be your way of trying to impose your will and/or opinion, and if so, Chick urges you to lay off.

Be able to explain the benefits.
“If you can show the person(s) what the improvement would be for them, they’re more likely to be receptive to it,” says Cinéas. For example, if you tell someone they need to work on their presentation skills, offer resources to them as well to jump-start them on the appropriate path. Also, Cinéas adds that tactfulness is imperative and the main thing to remember in your delivery is to “address the issue, not the person.”