Your Boss Is Not A Jerk—How To Turn Constructive Criticism into Career Success

By Jenny Chisnell - UX Designer - Cincinnati

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Think about the last critique you received from your boss.  Did it hurt? 

Be honest. It’s okay.

Nobody really “likes” hearing what they did wrong.  But every word your employer utters is a gift. 

So don’t look that gift horse in the mouth: Here’s how to do more than stick a band aid on it and start nursing a hidden resentment—here’s how to not only accept, but embrace, your areas of improvement.

There’s an ancient Sufi saying I attempt to apply to my daily interactions:

“Every time words are about to cross your lips, ask yourself the following questions:

- Is it true?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it kind?”

A lot of managers have the first point down, if not the second.  But plenty of people (and you may feel like you’re stuck dealing with most of them!) just don’t get #3.  In our culture, “blunt” is synonymous with “honest.”

Honesty is a good thing!  Bluntness is unnecessary. 

But you’re not going to change the world by understanding that—all you can do is accept it as fact.

I was raised in a household where “telling it like it is,” no matter who gets hurt, was a core value.  I know that this primed me to be relatively sensitive, even defensive, as an adult.  I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself not to overreact or internalize negative feedback.

Invite Candid Feedback

It can be done.  Today, I invite candid feedback up front from new colleagues.  It has taken time to get here, and there is still work to be done.  But today I know I’m no longer being dishonest with myself when I think, “I’m tough, I can take it.”  I did that for years, and it didn’t change anything.

Why spend hours on concertos when you’re already a genius at the violin?  You could be spending that time gradually building that huff-and-puff jog around the block into a six-minute-mile.

Investing your limited time on this planet into bringing your weakest skills up to par is key to a balanced life—and balance in all things is something I’ve come to recognize as central to success and happiness.

The best boss I’ve ever had was a man of great character who I deeply respected—intelligent, charming, honest to a fault.

All the more reason that any disapproval he gave me stung.  I wanted to please him and execute his directives with excellence, because he was a genuinely good guy who always did the right thing.

He “told it like it is” every two weeks when we met for our 1-on-1.  He was not an unkind person.  He cushioned his critique with praise both before and after the pain-point (an excellent managerial skill and a hallmark of a good leader).  He did a great job at his job. 

So why did I occasionally still have to go splash cold water on my face after our meetings?

Because I wasn’t improving, yet I was trying as hard as I could.  Why?  I believe the answer is:

  • I wasn’t a good fit.  The primary weakness he called out seemed aggravated by this particular position, as it had come up on the job before but was never a serious issue.

I may always have to watch my attention to detail like a hawk—simply knowing you have a problem won’t solve it.  We’re just not as good at some things as we are at others.  But by drawing attention to this tendency, he made me hyper-conscious of it, which has helped me do even better at my current job.

  • Even more importantly: kicking myself when I was down made me my own worst enemy.  No matter how hard I tried to be kind to myself, and no matter how much I tried to focus on the positive, at the end of the day I still felt like a failure. 

He never implied I was a failure, not by any stretch—I brought that on myself.  That’s MY baggage, and I own it.

Ultimately, I had to learn to distance myself emotionally as much as possible from his insights, in order to gain objective facts that could genuinely help me.

That’s all any boss is really trying to do, I believe—help you.  He’s not a jerk just because he wants you to rewrite that report you poured your heart into.  He just wants the customer to be happy.  He cares about the bottom-line, as should you, and is trying to do his job.

Simple Steps To Follow

So what are the practical steps you can take to turn straw into gold?

1. MEDITATE.  This will not only improve your concentration and serenity, it’s a great tool for working through your issues.  And it’s very simple.  Find a comfortable position and concentrate on each breath in and each breath out.  When you find thoughts inevitably popping into your head, take note of each thought, assess whether it is positive or negative, and let it go.  You can find simple instructions on basic meditation here. 

There’s a voice inside you that wants to tell you you’re the worst, the voice of a person you may not even know.  Meditation is how you meet them and tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t need you anymore.”  Most of what makes constructive criticism sting is not the feedback itself, but everything we pile on top of it mentally.

2. VALIDATE.  This is the one I still need to work on the most, because it just seems so cheesy.  If you’re not ready to give yourself a pep talk in the mirror, try “visualizing success” instead.  It is commonly believed that this helps enormously. 

If you’re not into that, try making a list of the things you know you are good at (ask the people who know you best if you’re so discouraged you can’t come up with anything).  Re-read it when you’re feeling negative. 

3. TALK IT THROUGH.  We all have things we bottle up inside.  Even if you see yourself as a relatively well-adjusted person, there are nevertheless many things you’ve internalized from how you were raised that still affect you on a daily basis.

This may or may not require therapy; it may come to you in the form of venting to a Good Friend, i.e. a friend who will tell you gentle truths.  A friend who won’t lie to you, but who will be loving and kind abou itt.  These are the people who “get” the old Sufi saying.  Cultivate such relationships in your life.

On the flip side, cut the Haters.  I’m talking about “trolls.”  These are the real jerks, the people who are just downright hateful.  They usually hide behind the anonymity of the internet to be cruel.  They’re doing it for fun—it really isn’t personal.  So don’t give them the attention they want, or you’re letting them win.

When choosing my friends, I think about the credo “Be encouraging; the world has enough critics.”  Surround yourself with people who support you, because you’re probably already wrestling with your inner critic; you don’t need others adding static on top of that.

4. FORGIVE.  What has helped me most to move on from the deeply-buried hurts of my past is taking inventory.  I list my resentments about the people who have hurt me.  Then I look at my part in the situation.  I accept the fact that we all have character defects and assets, that no one is truly a bad person at heart even if we’ve done bad things.

Then, I make amends to the people I have harmed.  Whether or not they accept my apologies, I grow as a person.  Because it allows me to turn resentment into the empowerment of personal accountability.  It’s an ongoing process—the more you step on the toes of your fellows, the more they’ll retaliate, and nobody’s perfect so it’s bound to happen.  When it inevitably pops up again, be grateful that you now have the tools to deal with it.


Mindset is Key

Ultimately, it all comes down to mindset.  A few years back, I encountered the work of Carol Dweck.  She espouses the idea that people fall into one of two categories—they either have a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.”  If you’re a sensitive person, you may well fall into the latter category.

The “fixed mindset” group believes that people are born with certain innate talents.  We are the way we are.  This is often a result of the way we are praised growing up—“You’re so smart,” leaves a much different impression on the developing mind than “You worked so hard!” 

As a result, they may avoid challenges and obstacles, because failure reflects on who they are as a person.  They may also feel threatened by the success of others.  But most important is how they react to criticism:

“Useful negative feedback is ignored in the best of cases, and taken as an insult the rest of the time…This usually discourages the people around and after a while they stop giving any negative feedback, further isolating the person from external influences that could generate some change.”

The growth mindset is quite the opposite.  This group believes that intelligence and talent can be developed with work over time.  They know they’ll come out stronger on the other side of a challenge, and that “failure” is just an opportunity to learn.  Criticism and negative feedback are sources of information.  Because they know they have the power to change and improve, they know it’s merely an assessment of their abilities at the present time—not a reflection on how they will be forever.

You have two choices—like a broken record, you can keep hearing the same things come up at every performance review.  Or you can take that feedback to heart and start making changes. 

Your career will thank you for it.


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