One of the most difficult and demoralizing workplace situations to endure is when someone criticizes you in front of your whole team. Each of us responds slightly differently to that situation: how you react will depend on your self-confidence, your physical state at the time (e.g., are you tired, anxious, or angry), and the cultural norms in the situation. Regardless of what you think or feel , it is important that you avoid defensiveness and, instead, behave in a way that sends a positive message about your professionalism, your resilience, and your openness to learning.
When delivered well, constructive criticism doesn’t feel critical, so for the sake of illustration, let’s consider an example of really poorly delivered feedback. Assume that you have just received feedback that was personal (rather than situational), that was assertive and closed-ended, and that it was public. These are the worst case scenario versions of criticism. If you can’t conjure your own example, try inserting your own name into this statement.
“Frank, you completely missed the point. You have such an internal bias. You totally neglected the external perspective. I can’t take show this to my boss!”
Here’s how to have your reputation emerge not only unscathed, but strengthened.
Pay Attention to Your Reaction
First, it is extremely important to remember that the impact feedback has on you can be wildly different from what the person providing the feedback intended. Separate the impact from the intent and focus only on your visceral and emotional reaction to what you just heard. At this point, say nothing, just experience your reaction. Become aware of what you’re thinking and feeling. “Wow. That just threw me for a loop. I can feel my heart racing.” Avoid drawing conclusions about the person who gave you the feedback—you don’t have enough information yet.
Share Your Reaction
Next, share your reaction. “Michelle, that just came out of nowhere for me. Give me a second.” This does a few valuable things. First, it gives you a moment to catch your breath and to think through a cogent response. Second, it sends Michelle a message about the impact she’s just had on you so she can choose to de-escalate the conversation or at least be a little gentler. Third, this is good training for Michelle that her words have consequences and that she should probably be more careful with how she conveys difficult messages.
Ask a Good Question
Resist every urge in your body to fight, freeze, or flee. Don’t rebut. Don’t shut down. Instead, ask a question to get more information and to demonstrate your openness to hearing and understanding the feedback. “When you said that I neglected the external perspective, can you tell me what types of things you expected to see?” Make sure you quote the person accurately. You come off as closed-minded and reactionary if you infer judgment by saying something like “Michelle, when you said I have blinders on…” or worse, “I’m sorry you think I’m so stupid!”
Listen and Learn
Then listen really, really carefully. Listen openly to the response you get and make sure you give the person a chance to land the message differently the second time. Take note of the exact words as the person will likely choose them much more deliberately the second time around. Think about how the subtle changes in words she chooses change how you interpret her feedback. Try to tease out her assumptions and what you might have triggered that caused the strong reaction in the first place.
Once you start to get a sense of the root issue, ask another question to see if you’re on the right track. “When you clarified, you were talking specifically about the lack of a competitor analysis in the presentation. What important storyline am I missing?
Now, by demonstrating your openness to the feedback, you have likely settled into a more comfortable and productive conversation. You can reinforce that by articulating your new appreciation for the person’s intent. “I get the sense this is an important credibility issue for our executives. Thanks for having my back. Do you think including this new section will do the trick?”
It might take several rounds of open-ended questions and open-minded listening to turn unpleasant feedback into a fruitful interchange. With each round, you reduce the adversarial dynamic, learn about yourselves and each other, and improve the quality of the work. By doing this, you are actually training your team how to engage in difficult conversations in a way that makes them less aversive and more productive.
Being publicly criticized is never fun, but the way you handle it is the difference between tarnishing your reputation and strengthening it.