The Importance of Taking Criticism Constructively at Work

By Song Woo, Contributor
June 12, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

I love to hire confident people and surround myself with driven individuals.  Having a competitive environment helps everyone push one another to maximize their potential.  Competition, pride, ego, etc., all of that is great in my opinion in a performance driven environment.  It also means there’s never a dull moment.  Leading these types of talented individuals also has its challenges.  From a management perspective, pushing people to their limits is tough as it is, but it magnifies tenfold when you account for all the egos in play.  One of the more challenging things I have to do as a manager is give people constructive criticism.  What I have discovered even more challenging than giving that type of feedback is receiving it. I don’t think anyone truly enjoys hearing anything that’s not praise.  However, if you want to maximize your potential, taking criticism constructively is necessary.

I have worked side by side with and managed a lot of people with varying personalities.  One of the more subtle traits that I found common amongst all the top performers is how they received and reacted to criticism.  Early in my career, I probably did not react to criticism in the most positive manner externally, but internally I took it very constructively.  Criticism motivated me to be better and helped me be more cognizant of what I needed to work on.   On the flipside, I had a colleague who I was very close to at that time who reacted in the opposite manner.  Externally he said and did all the right things when criticism was directed towards him, but internally he didn’t agree with anything any of the managers said and really didn’t take the necessary steps to make the changes needed to evolve.  Our careers ran pretty parallel at the firm.  The difference between he and I is that I was promoted several times during that time frame into upper management and he never did.  The irony is that talent had nothing to do with it.  He was just as talented as I was, if not more than me.  However, his inability to take the criticism constructively and use that information to evolve in a manner that the company would have liked certainly impacted his career path.

Even when I look at my staff right now, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me who the top performers are and who is stagnant.  The individuals who are stubborn and don’t seem to take the necessary action to improve themselves and work on their weaknesses haven’t been promoted.  They are also being outperformed eventually by the individuals who embrace the constructive feedback and take action.  The good news is that it’s never too late to make changes.  If you feel like your stagnating at work, ask yourself what have you done to make changes based on the feedback and criticism you’ve received from your manager and/or peers.  If you’re still operating how you have always operated, that’s probably the reason.  Don’t ignore negative feedback and get defensive.  Take it in stride and be proactive.  There’s an old proverb I’m reminded of that my mom told me when she use to give me a hard time about improving my grades in school, “the gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”  I never quite understood what she meant back then, but that was her way of telling me why she was pushing me so hard.  I definitely get it now.