Workplace Feedback: Criticism, Complaints, and the Facts of (Professional) Life

The term feedback gets a pretty bad rap.

I'd imagine whoever invented the word feedback probably had pretty lofty expectations as to where it might go and what it might do one day. Like maybe it could supplant its notably coarser cousins — words like evaluation and assessment — as the noun of choice when dealing with personnel and workplace issues. Sadly, however, the word feedback somehow got intertwined with the word criticism (no one knows how this happened, of course); and so now, whenever someone hears the former, they almost always think of the latter — for better or for worse.

Usually when employees hear that word they automatically think they've done something wrong, that they've missed a step or a process or a deadline somewhere during the course of the day or the week or the pay period or the financial quarter. It strikes fear, the way the word rolls off your supervisor's tongue. The simple phrase step in here so I can give you some feedback almost always comes out sounding like step in here so I can criticize you and tell you what you're doing wrong.

Ugh.

In my experience, "feedback sessions" are generally more difficult in large company settings. In many ways, you're faceless and anonymous in such places — you can get lost in the shuffle very easily. At IGS, however, operating as a small business allows us to focus on form as well as function. Since we routinely pull resources from across the entire company (and as such have lots of different hands touching lots of different projects), it's important that we address all associates as people first — not just as job titles. From my experience, this means feedback sessions are generally more genial, more constructive.

Having said that, however, the bottom line remains: as a professional in this day and age, you're going to have to deal with feedback (and, perhaps, some actual criticism too) at some point. It will happen. The questions is how to handle that feedback properly. Get the answer right and you could put yourself on the fast track to success far earlier than your peers.           

Receiving Feedback: Tip #1 — It's Not Personal

Feedback is about one thing: improvement. Therefore, you need to understand that all information contained therein is not intended to insult you; rather, it’s intended to build you up. Understanding this process is called developing "thick skin" — an ability to accept and process such feedback — and it's essential if you hope to survive in the corporate world (or any world, really) for any extended period of time. Nobody is perfect on the first try.

You want proof? According to USA Today, a recent study of more than 3,600 participants who took the "Sensitivity to Criticism Test" revealed that those who tended to be defensive about criticism were less happy with their job, had lower performance ratings, and had lower overall self-esteem. And if you can't take feedback and don't like your job, well… chances are you might not have a job at all before too long.

Receiving Feedback: Tip #2 — It's Your Chance to Stand Out

It’s a good bet that your peers aren't too adept handling feedback because most employers don't dole it out as much as they used to. The Wall Street Journal notes that only 6% of human resources managers favor old-fashioned "tell-it-like-it-is" feedback these days, saying it has a negative impact on employee performance (according to a 2013 survey of 803 employers by the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce). In addition, that same group notes that performance reviews are infrequent in today's workplace, with 77% of employers conducting them only once a year. Use this to your advantage. Since so much of your competition likely has zero experience in hearing the straight story from management, you can stand out from the pack by showing just how adept you are at dealing with criticism in all forms. Besides, actively seeking out ways to improve your workplace output is never a bad idea (and may be the best way to avoid "feedback sessions" altogether).

Receiving Feedback: Tip #3 — Know What You're Dealing With

Are you receiving constructive criticism, or just plain-old criticism? It's important to know the difference. A Google search of the word criticism scores 23.6 million results, while a search of the words constructive criticism returns only 3.8 million results. That's astounding. Further, it likely cements what you probably always knew: very few people know how to constructively criticize anything (which is, in essence, the basis of providing feedback). Constructive criticism is what you ultimately want in any encounter with a supervisor or team leader — they want you to improve your performance, and you want the same (for a number of reasons: to keep your job, to advance in your career field, to earn a bigger paycheck). As such, make sure you know which type of criticism you're dealing with. Do your best to turn any encounter on such matters into a positive interaction for yourself and your firm. Don't be afraid to ask your supervisor what points, exactly, he or she wants you to glean from your conversation. It's always acceptable to pull as much positivity out of any work-centric conversation as you can; it'll show your supervisor that you're willing to learn and, more importantly, that you're willing to accept unvarnished truth as a means to an end.

In the end, receiving (and processing) feedback is about understanding the process of the modern workplace and where you fit in — your role. It's important to note that if your manager didn't care enough to offer you feedback in the first place, you'd probably be out of a job. Taken in that light, feedback is essential to employment, and how, exactly, you receive it can be key to succeeding within your chosen profession.

At IGS, we deal with each other so frequently that you can't help but develop friendships over the course of a project or a contract. Such friendships make it easier to give and receive feedback, as in smaller businesses it's often easier to understand the motivations of the person next to you. No one wants to let the team down, so you find a way to work together. That being said, IGS is a unique place. Not everyone will get such an experience over the course of their career. That's why it's important to develop that "thick skin" we talked about earlier — you may not always need it, but you'll be glad you have it when you do.

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