The psychology of dealing with criticism


What happens when you receive feedback? And how do you ensure you make the most of constructive criticism?

In her webinar Giving great feedback, everywoman expert Sara Parsons extols the virtues of opening your ears to external views of your performance.

“Getting feedback ensures you’re on the right path and helps develop a roadmap to where you want to be. It allows you to tackle personal blind spots; learn more about yourself; and reminds you of your purpose.”

As our popular workbook details, there’s an art to giving and receiving feedback. But there’s a science too, a huge amount of psychology at play when you receive constructive criticism. Learn how you can change your mindset to ensure feedback coming your way is as effective as possible.


Problem: you look for reasons why failure isn’t your fault

As humans evolved, we gained confidence and social standing from our successes. This profoundly influences how you receive feedback in the workplace. When you succeed, you look for reasons why what you did and how you did it influenced the overall result. But when you fail, you’re hardwired to look for external reasons – the inaction of others perhaps, or just bad luck. You distance yourself from any part you may have played in an unsatisfactory result. This response is magnified when there are witnesses.


“Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival.”

Psychologist Daniel Goleman


Solution: develop a growth mindset

Having your mistakes held up makes for uncomfortable listening, particularly when the bearer of bad news is someone you want to impress. This is where a big mindset switch is critical. Some of the most successful business people welcome failure as a means to development. Spanx founder Sarah Blakeley attributes failure to her overall multi-billion dollar success; she recalls how childhood dinnertimes involved her father asking what hadn’t gone well at school that day.


Seeking feedback is the mark of a leader. A Forbes study found that leaders in the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated in the top 14% for effectiveness.

Those without such early exposure to failure-comfort can start by taking a brave assessment of past mistakes: instead of focusing on what went wrong, examine what was learned as a result. Make a deal with yourself that when a mistake is next highlighted to you, you’ll examine it for the lesson.


Problem: You don’t trust the person assessing you

Studies have shown that your receptiveness to constructive feedback is as much to do with your feelings towards the person delivering it, as it is the contents. The key is trust: you need to see the person as credible in order to fully take on board what they have to say. This presents problems if the feedback is coming from a brand new boss, a senior figure whose daily interaction with you is limited or a colleague with whom your relationship is fraught.


Solution: welcome a 360-degree view

In truth it’s likely that the negative feedback you receive from a less than trusted colleague will never be as integral to your development as that from a closer confidante. Sara Parsons urges you to remember that feedback allows you to build a picture of how you are viewed by others. First impressions can count for a lot, and as you navigate the business world, you’re likely to encounter many new colleagues and bosses, who’ll form opinions about you and your performance. As you strive for a complete 360-degree view of your work self, begin to see those outside your inner circle or colleagues with whom your relationship needs work as people who can offer a different perspective on what it’s like to work with you. Even if you feel their impression is wrong, there are lessons to be drawn from how you are perceived by those at a distance.


Problem: you don’t know how to make things better

In a study examining how employees feel when they receive critical feedback, one of the biggest surprises was that nearly three quarters (74%) said that the criticism was expected: they’d already figured out there was a problem and guessed what was coming. What most wanted from their line manager was guidance for improving, but often bosses, sometimes as reluctant to deliver negative feedback as their reports are to receive it, sidestep awkwardness by avoiding an extended conversation.


“A struggling employee may not realize how serious the problem is or hasn’t figured out how to do better. Simply pointing out the problem isn’t going to be all that helpful.”

Harvard Business Review


Solution: own your weaknesses and get in first

If you’re aware of a sticking point in your performance, nothing is likely to foster strength in your manager relationship like owning your weaknesses. Don’t wait for an annual performance review; use your 1-2-1 time to address something you’ve noticed about yourself that you want to change or improve. Your boss will likely be relieved, perhaps even impressed at your self-awareness, willingness to learn and accept responsibility. Moreover, by addressing your mistakes or limitations, the conversation can focus on next steps. Seek clarification, ask for help, commit to growth and communicate your desire for ongoing feedback as you move forward with your agreed plan.


Problem: your feedback lacks a motivating factor

It stands to reason that for feedback to be useful it needs to be specific. But studies have shown that one of the best motivators is when feedback is delivered in the context of how your peers are doing. More specifically, finding out that you’re falling just short of someone else’s superior performance can be an important driver, awakening a competitive edge that makes you want to deliver.


“Managers trying to encourage employees to work harder might provide feedback about how a person is doing relative to a slightly better performer. Strategically scheduling breaks when someone is behind should also help focus people on the deficit and subsequently increase effort. This should lead to stronger performance and ultimately success.”

The British Psychological Society


Solution: dial up your competitive spirit

Find role models who are just ahead of you in terms of career placement; seek their advice on where you can improve and observe how they do things in order to fire up your own desire to forge ahead. If you’re asked to improve your performance, ask your boss for an example of such work being done well by a colleague or superior. Explore the success of others and let it spur you on to achieve even greater things for yourself.


More on tough conversations

Learning to say no: the four Ds

‘P.O.K.E.R’: Your guide to handling difficult conversations

Understanding your boss: the key to a successful partnership


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