Nobody is perfect, and part of a supervisor’s job is to provide critical feedback. But that feedback isn’t always the easiest thing to hear. Even when criticism is constructive, it may feel like an attack—especially when it comes from someone who has power over you in the workplace.
It’s important to remember that feedback is meant to help you grow, not to tear you down. And the ability to accept critique with grace and maturity is an important part of professional life—and can even increase your supervisor’s respect for you.
These tips can help you to take supervisor feedback in stride.
Don’t take it personally
Keep in mind that the feedback is about your work performance, not about you as a person. It’s not a judgment of your dedication, passion, skills, or potential. Even the most accomplished workers make errors, though in the moment, you may think you’re the only one. Remember: your supervisor wouldn’t take the time for a critique if they didn’t believe in your value to the organization and your ability to grow from the feedback.
Your first reaction may be to go on the defensive. You might want to blurt out apologies or excuses, or to dismiss the criticism out of hand.
But the best thing you can do is listen, take in the information, and stay calm. Resist the urge to interrupt or respond immediately. The more you can keep your emotions out of the equation, the clearer your head will be.
One helpful mental trick is to detach the critique from its personal surroundings. Imagine if your boss wasn’t talking about you or your actions. Would the advice seem justified or unfair if it was delivered to someone else? By the same token, try not to let any personal feelings about your supervisor interfere with your reaction.
If you do feel yourself getting emotional, ask if you can discuss the issue later once you’ve had some time to process the info.
Give a thoughtful response
After you’ve listened what your supervisor has to say, repeat back what you heard. This allows you to clear up any misconceptions and indicates you’ve been listening carefully. Try phrases like:
And be sure to follow your statement with "Is that correct?"
Don’t analyze or debate their interpretation of the situation; reflect honestly on what they said. If they haven’t been clear about how you can improve, ask for recommendations. See if they can give you examples of what went wrong and what should happen instead, and take notes while they’re talking. You may realize that a miscommunication lies at the heart of the situation..
Finally, thank them for taking the time to give feedback—even if you don’t feel particularly grateful. Criticism often points out the blind spots we can’t see ourselves, and it’s a valuable service for an employer to provide.
Focus on the future
After you have some clarity on how to proceed, make an action plan with your supervisor. This may involve a timeline for improving certain performance metrics, a retraining period, or an entirely new approach.
Though your boss should make their expectations clear, most of the work will be on your end. Set goals for yourself based on your own assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. For example, do you need to give yourself more time to accomplish tasks? Or do you need to take more time to make sure you fully understand a set of guidelines you are given?
Your goal is to come away from the meeting with concrete ideas for moving forward, and your boss may be more aware of the need to keep the lines of communication open. Think of the two of you as a team searching for solutions, not two people pitted against each other.
What if you still struggle?
You may be able to give the feedback calm, objective consideration, but still have a hard time putting it into practice. If this is the case, think about why.
Are you still not sure what needs to change?
Try tactfully and respectfully letting your boss know; this is always better than suffering in silence. Be as specific as possible about what direction you lack and what you need. Put your request in writing, since this leaves a "paper trail" you can refer to in the future.
Maybe you object to the advice itself—not for personal reasons, but because you and your boss disagree on the best way to get the job done. This situation is best handled on a case-by-case basis. Your supervisor does have the final say, and you might have to put your own ideas aside. But in the future you can offer practical suggestions, backing them up with facts so your boss can see your perspective.
If you genuinely feel you were treated unfairly, though, you may want to seek the opinions of co-workers or supervisors. While unjust criticism is the exception rather than the rule, it does happen.
You can get a second opinion without revealing details of private conversations or painting yourself as a victim. Ask others how they follow a certain procedure, or let them know you could use some guidance in the area your boss told you to work on. If their view differs significantly from your boss’s perspective, this is something to keep in mind. The problem may lie in conflicting sets of expectations within the organization.
Focus on separating the useful, actionable parts of the critique from the parts that weren’t as helpful to you. You may be able to see this distinction—and learn from it—with more clarity after some hours or days have passed.
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Frequent and poorly delivered criticism is a breeder of conflict in personal and work relationships. Constant criticism tends to create a call-and-response pattern that’s none too pleasant and can slowly erode the relationship’s foundations. If you feel constantly criticized, here’s how to begin changing the dynamic by changing how you respond.
A participant at one of my recent conflict resolution workshops – I’ll call her Bev – approached me afterward to ask my advice about responding to constant criticism. Bev and her husband are in a conflict dance that will feel familiar to some of you. The dance steps go like this:
A strategy for responding to frequent criticism
One reason that criticism gets messy is that two issues get tangled: The feedback itself and the frequent and/or unpleasant delivery of that feedback. Whenever possible, de-couple the two issues. Here is a method I’ve taught to many of my coaching clients over the years:
1. Acknowledge receipt. Acknowledging isn’t the same as accepting or agreeing, though people often conflate the two. For now, keep the acknowledgement simple, like this: Thanks for the feedback. I’ll consider it. The sincerity you can muster for this statement will directly influence whether they accept the statement or continue to rankle you.
2. Cool off. Research suggests at least 30 minutes of distracting mental activity to cool down. Don’t engage when you’re still angry.
3. Decide to accept or reject. The receiver of feedback gets to choose whether or not any of it has merit. The benefit of cooling off first is that you have a better chance of seeing any wise nuggets in the other person’s rampant criticism. And if there aren’t any, you get to reject the gift of insults.
4. Repeat. Several times. This demonstrates your willingness to consider feedback the other is offering. This the courageous step, by the way, the place where most will be tempted to throw in the towel. You may be thinking, Why should I have to keep listening to this crap? Why is it my burden to be the adult here? Well, because you are an adult. Keep your eyes on the long game — you are working toward a long-term solution, not short-term triumph.
5. Raise the second issue (frequency or unpleasant delivery) later. At a time completely separate, and in private, raise the second issue, the frequency or manner in which they criticize. You might say something like, I’d like to talk about something that’s been weighing on me. I’ve been working hard not to push back when you offer me feedback, and now I’d like you to consider some feedback from me. When can we talk about this for a few minutes?
I advised Bev to try the above strategy for a few weeks before going to Step 5. It does mean she’ll have to bite her tongue. But if this is the man she loves, a few weeks is a pretty small period in a lifetime relationship. It takes a while to change a habit that’s well-established.
And I suspect a few things may happen over those few weeks if she can successfully keep herself from tangling the two issues. He will probably begin to notice that she isn’t pushing back whenever he criticizes, and that may soften his habit a bit. She may discover there’s wheat (something beneficial) in all the criticism chaff. The bickering should decrease. And when she’s ready to raise the second issue, he’s much more likely to be willing to talk about it meaningfully.
In conflict, it’s tempting to make it the other person’s job to fix the problem. How much more empowering to remember that you can change the dance yourself.