Want to Be Successful? Get Comfortable with Critique

By Whit Mitchell

When your car isn’t working correctly, you take it to a mechanic who looks under the hood to find the problem. He doesn’t give you a list of everything that’s functioning right; he’s looking for what’s wrong so that he can fix it. It’s the same in the workplace.

In order to perform at the highest level, everyone in your culture needs to look for opportunities to critique their peers, direct reports, managers, themselves, company processes, practices, and more. It’s good strategy for leaders to routinely “look under the hood” to discover problems that need to be solved and to continue the improvement process. 

Why Critique Gets a Bad Rap
The trouble with critique is often the way it’s delivered. Feedback is given so poorly so often, and giving quality feedback is not a skill that is taught to employees. Most people try to avoid criticism. In general, people like to think they are doing the best job they can. 

Most of us can go back to our youth and remember how difficult it was to hear parents, coaches or teachers criticize us for something. From the start, critique is not usually a very positive experience. If you’ve had a hurtful experience with criticism, it can stay with you, even when others try to use feedback as an opportunity for you to grow.

When giving feedback, think about these two words: Intent and Impact. What is your intent on delivering critique? What will the impact be on the receiver’s end? If your intent is to be helpful and supportive, your message will generally be heard, accepted and appreciated. If your intent is to harm or “get back” at the person, this intent will be felt and the results will be negative.

The Benefits of Critique
Creating a culture of safe feedback generates an environment of open and trusting dialogue. People feel empowered to take risks and speak their minds. It breeds innovation, creativity and growth for your company and its products. 

Think about it. Who are you willing to hear critique from? Probably only a select few people at work or at home. It takes years to build the trust required to be open enough to receive criticism from someone. 

When a leader is open to feedback, the potential to grow and develop additional leadership skills is endless. People around you will see you thank others for their observations about your behavior. They may catch the bug and begin to ask their close colleagues for feedback as well. Now you’ve created a new environment of openness and honesty. What do you think could happen in that environment?

Learning to Accept Critique
For years I worked with Marshall Goldsmith at Tuck Business School, and his 360-degree Feedback program was the first time I remember people being excited to receive criticism. Marshall set the table so beautifully when he explained the power of listening to criticism. People were hungry for it.

It may take some time to sift through feedback. Ask if the person who is criticizing you is doing it with good intent or if they are trying to get back at you or hurt you. After you’ve determined intent, start to peel the onion back—find where the truth is in the message.

Criticism is really a golden opportunity—the opportunity to see yourself as others see you! This is impossible to do on your own. Feedback gives you direction and areas where you can improve. 

You can manifest positive experiences with critique by asking those close to you to give you feedback in specific areas. Ask for both good and bad opinions. The more you receive feedback, especially if you act on it and see a change, the easier it will get. This ability to take action can turn your feelings of inferiority into feelings of confidence.

When you learn how to quiet your emotions and listen to feedback without judgment, you will develop the discipline, openness, and humility—and ultimately more self-awareness.