8 Jun 2022

How to take criticism

The immediate childish reaction to most criticism is to reject it. Even if the criticism is totally unjustified, however, and your indignation is entirely understandable, you should not lose your temper. If you wish to set out to prove that you are being wrongly appraised, then you will need a cool head and calm nerves. An intemperate reaction will do little to establish you in the eyes of others as the sort of reliable, conscientious person who would never put a foot wrong.

If the criticism is justified, then you have to accept it with as good grace as possible. Actual mistakes are easily identified and must be acknowledged. More pernicious criticisms, regarding your personality, trustworthiness, and working demeanour, are harder to accept because they involve subjective judgements, which are more potent if they are representative of more general opinion within your organisation. If this kind of criticism is backed up with corroboration and agreement from a wider circle you will need to concede that there is a problem.

The more responsibility we take on, the more senior our position, the more we are in the public eye, the more we are scrutinised and assessed. If we hold positions of power we are accountable to those over whom we hold authority, and we must accept this surveillance.

Once a colleague or someone in authority has pointed out what you are doing wrong, then the next step is largely up to you. The first priority is to offer a genuine apology for your shortcomings, which means explicitly acknowledging your mistakes, taking full responsibility for them (no pleading of mitigating circumstances or blaming others), and expressing genuine regret.

If you can’t remedy the situation without the help of others, then you must ask for that help. Surrounding yourself with a supportive and competent team may well offer a positive solution. If the solution lies entirely in your own hands, then you should acknowledge your full responsibility and take the necessary steps, which may involve rectifying mistakes or evolving new ways of working.

If the situation has deteriorated to the point where there is no obvious remedy or solution, it is time to step back and assess the part you have played in this decline and your own culpability. At this point, if you are feeling beleaguered and exposed, it is quite possible that you will adopt a defiant stance and double down. But this defensive behaviour will only prolong the agony. What is needed is a clear-eyed appraisal of the possible consequences of your obstinacy, and if you are incapable of seeing it yourself, now is the time to listen to objective advice from trusted colleagues and friends.

You may have reached the point of no return, where you have to admit defeat and adopt an exit strategy, by resigning your post and relinquishing your position. This is clearly a difficult moment; you will be confronted by a tsunami of criticism and you will have to handle an array of negative emotions – embarrassment, humiliation, anger, regret.

The important thing is not to allow these emotions to cloud your judgement, and to move past them. By understanding your limits and acknowledging you have made mistakes and reached the end of the road, you are accepting full responsibility for your actions. Your recognition of your own shortcomings will go a long way to silencing the chorus of disapproval and ultimately you will be able to move on to pastures new.

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