The right way to respond to constructive criticism

Negative feedback can be a good thing. You just have to learn how to use it to your advantage.

The right way to respond to constructive criticism

You’re minding your own business typing away when you hear (or read) those words no one ever wants to hear: “We should talk.” You immediately go to the worst case scenarios—you totally messed something up and you’re getting fired. Nobody likes to hear what they’ve done wrong, what they’re not good at, or where they have areas for improvement.

“We take pride in our work, and it is hard not to take professional feedback personally,” says Angelina Darrisaw, founder of the New York City–based career-coaching firm C-Suite Coach.

“To deal with this, first try to assume that the feedback is coming from a good place and that your boss wants you to be successful,” she says. “Even high performers need to constantly sharpen their skills.”

If you learn to really listen to constructive criticism, interpret it correctly, and act on the feedback, you’ll come out of a bad review, or even just an uncomfortable conversation, ahead of the game, no matter what stage of your career you’re at.

Put yourself in your boss’s shoes

It’s easy to see things from your side, but if you can shift your perspective to your manager’s point of view, the feedback will be easier to swallow. For instance, your opinion may be that you’re missing deadlines because they’re unrealistic and you’re multitasking multiple projects. Your boss’s opinion may be that you’re missing deadlines because you don’t think they are important or because you have lousy time-management skills. The key is to have an honest and respectful conversation and consider each other’s perspectives.

“If you can see things from their point of view, you can better understand that person, which is invaluable when it comes to working relationships,” says Dr. Leah Weiss, a researcher and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

Reflect before you react

Your first instinct might be to get defensive, explain your actions, or shut down—instead of evaluating whether there is any validity to the critique.

Weiss recommends taking a day or two to reflect on the criticism. Think about whether the other person might have a point. Maybe you could be more vocal when you think you’ll miss a deadline, say “no” to projects if you’re swamped, or find ways to increase your productivity. “It’s hard to do this if you reply right away, so it’s best to take a few moments or longer,” she says.

“Take a deep breath and ask yourself the following,” she says. “Did the feedback point out something you didn’t think of? Was it something that you can admit needs work or improvement? Did the person give you actionable steps towards fixing the problem?”

Ask how you can improve

As much as you want to run out of the conference room, and as humbling as this may feel, don’t leave the conversation without getting clarity on how you can improve. Nothing pleases a boss more than the sense that her feedback is being heard—and that an employee has a genuine willingness to improve.

Darrisaw recommends asking questions to understand the feedback and develop goals..“Consider asking your boss to offer suggestions and work with you on a plan to get better,” Darrisaw says. “Get her to be as specific as possible, then work on creating some goals to measure your progress.”

Turn the negative into a positive

Now that you know where you have room to improve and you’ve created an action plan, it’s time to make some changes. (Nothing changes if nothing changes, right?)

Based on the “goals’ conversation you had, write up an “action plan” and put it on your desk so that it’s top of mind. Try to hit one small goal each day and one big goal each week, then follow up with your boss once you feel like you’ve improved and met (or exceeded) your goals.

“Return to the source of the feedback and ask if they’ve seen any observable changes,” says Dr. Vijayeta Sinh, a psychologist at her New York City–based practice, NYC Family Therapy. “Others appreciate your taking in what they said and are more willing to help you when you are gracious and humble about yourself,” says Sinh.