• Jody Glynn Patrick

Sticks & Stones – dealing with workplace criticism

Updated: Dec 23, 2020


“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill


Usually you are quite open to feedback and you even welcome negative comments if you believe they have merit, or if they are offered by a friend who cares about you.


So after Randy emails saying he’d like to discuss your team project suggestions with you “face to face” before adding them to the group report, is your first reaction one of appreciation, apprehension, or annoyance? The answer likely depends more on how you feel about Randy than on your core personality traits or how you feel about your work.


If Randy has ever displayed passive-aggressive or outright rude behavior toward you, you may be biologically inclined to tune him out due to the “mirror neurons” in your brain.

Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, M.D., and his colleagues at the University of Parma noticed, while experimenting with macaque monkeys, that certain groups of neurons in the monkeys’ brains fired when a monkey performed an action (grabbing an apple) and also when the monkey watched another monkey grab an apple. The same neurons fired even when the monkey only heard another monkey doing the same thing in another room.


What does that science have to do with you and Randy? Later experimentation confirmed that the same holds true for human neurological reactions. This evolutionary “empathy” skill may be vital to our very survival, allowing us to learn from other human beings’ successes, mistakes, and advice. However, further research suggests that our hardwired empathy loop is overridden when we don’t particularly care for the person modeling the behavior — or telling us what to do or not to do.


Further experimental research shows that if we do not like someone, we do not flinch when they get hit in a boxing ring. We override our natural neural reaction to their misery. Nor does a person’s success bring a reactionary smile or racing heart if we don’t believe they deserve it. Subconsciously, we’ve decided “they are not like me” and therefore, “I won’t/can’t learn from them”… and so we mentally “talk-to-the-hand” dismiss them.


Let’s agree that Randy has unfairly undermined you in the past or you don't like him for other reasons. You can still stay true to your core value of hearing and learning from negative as well as positive feedback. Here’s how:


CALM YOURSELF. Listen to understand rather than to refute. Regardless of how excited he might become while expressing his views (or how enthusiastically he knocks your work), your own controlled approach to handling conflict in a more mature, healthy manner will help lower his temperature, too.


CHOOSE to regard him as a potential mentor, despite past history. Randy is, in fact, a fellow human being with many of the same fears and needs you have. Try to hop over to his side of the fence. Search for, and focus on, some small seed of truth or fairness in the feedback. You can also better defend your work in his eyes, if he’s truly unfair, by first admitting what valid points you found in his analysis.


ASK for specifics. You can’t acknowledge what you don’t understand. Rather than argue a point, ask for more clarification — and keep asking (respectfully) until you reach a point of mutual understanding. Then open your mind to consider the feedback using that filter.


STATE your truth.You’ve set the groundwork for a respectful dialogue; this is the time to have it. If you see the merit of editing your work, admit it aloud and thank him for his interest or influence. If you honestly feel it is unfair criticism, acknowledge his concerns while stating clearly why you think your work should be included in the final report.


ACCEPT that sometimes things are not always “right” or “wrong” but rather “different.” If Randy makes the final decision on what goes into the report, well, at least you’ve understood his point of view, understood his concerns with your work, and created the opportunity to clearly state your opinion as well.


Resist the later temptation to undermine his decision with other colleagues, as he did to you in the past, because the best way to fight a smoldering fire is with water, not with a more powerful flamethrower. You can choose to model being the kind of colleague you’d like to work with — rather than mirror his less evolved behavior.


INFORMED CHOICE.That’s what makes you the smarter person you’re continually evolving into.

2021: Jody Glynn Patrick; all rights reserved