Bottom Line Inc

Learn From Your Critics


It is performance review time here at the office—that time of year when employees are fearful that the feedback won’t be the stellar celebration they imagine they deserve and yearn for…and managers fear the tough conversations that they may have to have. Frankly, even though I am the boss, I hate the process of performance reviews because I believe performance feedback should be given on a regular basis, not just once a year. I prefer and encourage “catching” people with immediate applause when they do a good job…and having frank conversations when things may be going astray. Nonetheless, there are many reasons to have annual reviews, and so we do them.

With this as a backdrop, I was heartened last Friday evening when a relatively junior team member stopped by my office to tell me how much she appreciated the honest, direct feedback she had received during her performance review from her new manager, not all of it glowing. Wow! In a world where the least bit of criticism is taken to be somewhere between a personal attack and a movement against some presumed downtrodden segment of the population, it was so refreshing to know that there are individuals who truly value honest feedback and hear it as a way to help them improve.

The path to becoming president of our family business was not an easy one. We had to work through an array of sometimes difficult family dynamics and interactions among family and nonfamily members. Some days were truly horrible. Then again, greatness often comes from life’s biggest challenges.

Among the many lessons I have learned from the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours spent with consultants and executive coaches is that feedback (aka, “criticism”) is just feedback, and it is best taken as an opportunity to learn rather than as a personal attack.

I am reminded of a time many years ago when I was out sailing with a friend. The boat got stuck on a sandbar. My friend reviewed with me the steps we would take to get out of the sand, and then he said, “I may yell. It’s nothing personal.” With the training I received, I now hear feedback that I get as simply feedback—it’s nothing personal.

Yeah, but what if feedback—whether given during a job review or at any other time—is directed in a personal way? Or it is absolutely wrong? You just want to defend and fight, don’t you? Especially if it’s coming from a family member. But here’s the thing—it is that person’s opinion, and whether you like it or not, his or her perception is his reality. So you have several choices…

  1. Get upset, and have an emotional debate about it. This most likely will leave you frustrated because the odds of changing the other person’s point of view are pretty low.
  2. Deny that there is any truth to it whatsoever, and write him/her off as an “idiot.” I call this the “pigeonhole method”—basically you put the criticizer in a virtual box in your heart and head that says, He can’t hurt me, because I don’t value or trust his judgment. This can be effective if used judiciously because, frankly, we all have some negative people in our lives who we would love to separate from but simply can’t. A pigeonhole protects you from their toxins.
  3. Use it as an opportunity to learn. This option is my favorite.

Being able to hear feedback, free from your own emotional reactions, puts you in a far more powerful position than throwing some kind of hissy fit. Bottom Line Personal just published an article about dealing with the critical people in your life. One of the biggest points in the article: When you don’t react emotionally and instead constructively ask for more information about the feedback, you accomplish two things—you open up a dialog to learn…and you take the sharp edge off the criticizer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with all that is being said. It simply means that you are listening to it and reflecting to see what you can learn from it. And as I said a few weeks ago, anger simply isn’t healthy.

Presumably we all want to be the best people we can be and live the best lives we can live. While we would love to always be right and perfect just as we are, the truth is that every one of us has lessons to learn until the day we die. The question is whether you want to learn those lessons and grow…or whether you want to dig in your heals and insist that you are right. It is an option but a very limiting one.

Source: Sarah Hiner is president and chief executive officer of Stamford, Connecticut–based Bottom Line Inc., which publishes books and the consumer newsletters Bottom Line Health and Bottom Line Personal.
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