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How (and why) to Ask for Criticism

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Although no one enjoys being criticized, we should try to view criticism as useful feedback. At best, we may learn about habits or traits that we need to change. And at the very least, we will better understand the other person's viewpoint. Critical feedback can help you improve, both personally and professionally. The most effective people invite helpful criticism through Critical Feedback Discussions.

1. How can I invite people to criticize me?
A few unpleasant people enjoy heaping harsh criticism on everybody. But many well-intentioned folks are reluctant to provide helpful feedback for fear of creating conflict. To overcome this reluctance and initiate a useful feedback discussion, try these suggestions:

Assess yourself. First, take a long, hard look in the mirror. What are your strengths and where could you improve? Identify specific areas where input from others would be helpful.

Prepare some inviting questions. You want to help the other person feel comfortable about providing feedback, so your questions need to be open, specific, and completely non-defensive. Here are some examples:

If you had to make two suggestions for improving my work, what would they be?
How could I handle my projects more effectively?
What could I do to make your job easier?
How could I do a better job of following through on commitments?
If you were in my position, what would you do to show people more appreciation?
When do I need to involve other people in my decisions?
How could I do a better job of prioritizing my activities?

Select helpful people. Good "criticizers" are people who (1) know you well enough to have an informed opinion, (2) are not out to get you, and (3) do not feel compelled to be relentlessly positive about everything.

Set the stage. Since people expect any criticism to immediately produce defensiveness, you need to begin this conversation by inviting honest opinions. Show that you really want their suggestions. For example: "One of my goals this year is to get some candid feedback about how I can be most effective at work, so I'd like to ask you a couple of questions. I am very interested in your opinion, and I really want you to be honest."

Do not debate or argue. When someone offers suggestions, do not debate or try to explain your behavior. Since you asked for an opinion, you need to listen and remain non-defensive. If you disagree, just say "I really appreciate your telling me that." And if you don't fully understand, ask for more information. But the best response is usually just to say thanks.

2. Should I include my boss?
Absolutely! You need to know what your boss is thinking. As the person who is ultimately responsible for evaluating your performance, your manager can have a significant impact on your career. When asking your manager for critical feedback, keep these points in mind:

You may be surprised by what you hear, because managers frequently fail to share all their concerns. Inviting critical feedback from your boss can help you avoid pitfalls that you didn't even know existed.  Even if you have regular performance reviews, your manager may have additional feedback to offer. Because performance reviews are official documents, managers often omit some critical comments.

You are not asking for a performance appraisal. The purpose of a critical feedback discussion is to enhance your professional development, while the purpose of a performance review is to evaluate your contributions during a specific time period. Do not try to discuss performance ratings during this conversation.

Your manager's opinions may differ from those of others. This does not mean that your manager is wrong. Different people see your job from different perspectives, depending on how your position relates to theirs. Your boss has a unique vantage point.

Feel free to also ask what you are doing well!  You don't have to limit this discussion to critical feedback.

3. How should I react to criticism?
To get the greatest benefit from Critical Feedback Discussions, consider the following suggestions . . .

Appreciate the compliments. Most people will include some positive feedback along with their suggestions. Take time to feel good about your strengths.

Don't explain away negative feedback. It's only human to find valid reasons for our behavior. But if you minimize constructive criticism, you will never learn from it.

Don't overreact. Remember that there are no perfect people. Everyone can improve in some way, so don't obsess about critical comments. Either view them as an opportunity for improvement or, if you disagree, just let them go.

Make your own decision about validity. Someone's opinion is not "The Truth" – it's only one perception. You have to decide whether or not they have a valid point.

Look for patterns. If you receive the same feedback from several people, it's more likely to be true. When you find a pattern, pay attention to it.

Set specific improvement goals. Instead of creating a long list of changes, identify the key goals that will make the greatest contribution to your future success. State your goals in terms of specific, observable behaviors. For example, saying "I want to improve my communications" is a "fuzzy" statement. But "I will listen more attentively when others are speaking" is a more specific goal.

Develop an action plan. For each goal, list specific action steps that will help you make the change. First, differentiate skill problems from motivation problems. That is, do you need to acquire new abilities? Or just make a greater effort to use skills that you already have? For example, becoming a good public speaker might involve specific skill training. But becoming a better listener doesn't require new skills, because everyone knows how to listen. They just choose not to for various reasons.

Follow up to assess progress. To find out if your efforts are succeeding, have follow-up discussions to find out if people have noticed your changes.

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