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The Thermodynamics of Feedback – How You Handle Criticism Can Make Your Career or Destroy You

When was the last time you were personally criticized as a leader in your organization when it was absolutely not what you were expecting?

Criticism, like the reaper drone, comes out of nowhere

Criticism is like the famed Reaper Drone used by the US military drops out of the sky at any moment and destroys  It’s the thermodynamic dynamic principle of human organization—criticism is about heat, energy, and direction.  Criticism propels an organization forward or punishes, paralyzes, and ultimately destroys its teams and individual careers.

We need to manage criticism to build our careers

Modern 21st century organizations believe in organized, consistent feedback- it’s not going away. Organizations today generally believe that leaders don’t get better without feedback/critique/criticism. Feedback is the norm – it’s increasingly important. It comes in the form of in the moment criticism or formal feedback from bosses and peers.

360-degree feedback has become the norm in many organizations and is a framework by which we are judged.  If we work on feedback and criticism, we will find that building our careers on the foundation of feedback is a fundamental building block of our careers.

Learning to manage feedback in whatever form is critical to your career.


Here are some strategies to help us manage criticism:

1.  Most of us hugely overreact to criticism- learn to transact rather than react. Criticism is a natural part of life.  We criticize ourselves often and those around us – but we react as if it is the first time we’re ever encountered it. Typical reactions are,  “They hate me,” or “I’m going to get fired,” all of which could be true, but usually aren’t going to happen, especially all at the same time.

2.  Your own self confidence and your belief in yourself is the bedrock foundation for managing criticism. Before you sort out what the criticism means, think back to the moment you best liked yourself, tap into that feeling and hold onto it tight. When you’re firmly grounded in being your own best friend, then you can sort things out, knowing that your commitment to yourself is unwavering.

3.  A “how dare they” mentality won’t help manage criticism. If the first words you hear yourself saying to yourself are, “How dare they?!” – know that of course they dare. Criticism comes from all sides and in any given moment. The first thing that comes out of your mouth is critical to your success. React with the same kind of emotional neutrality as if you were buying an orange at the grocery store. The first thing you say must be totally even-toned and transactional. If your face contorts, your voice rises, your posture is defensive, you’ve lost before firing a shot. A good retort is: “Tell me more.” That shifts the defense from you to the person bringing the criticism. They, not you, are left to explain.

4.  Find out what’s going on with this criticism before responding. Without being prosecutorial, maintain that transactional problem-solving tone and ask objective questions about the issue, who it is coming from, what its impact is, etc. Who else has encountered this issue with me? What path do you suggest I follow to resolve this issue?

5.  Pinpoint what part of the criticism has some truth in it. Dale Carnegie said almost a hundred years ago that nobody ever blames themselves for anything – and that’s true for me. But almost every time, there is some truth in a criticism. I’m not going to turn just anyone into my confessor, because in organizations what I do say will be held against me. But I still need to know what part I played in the criticism so that I can self-direct, and self-correct.

Some issues where I’m criticized clearly are something I’m doing that I wasn’t aware of, or a hard choice that I’ve made that negatively impacts others, but is a necessary decision. Sometimes it’s something I have done that I just need to change.

6.  Like a boxer, protect yourself and all times and be aware of your surroundings. Sometimes widespread criticism in the organization is a modern version of the French Revolution – Off with Their Heads! There are also wild situations when criticism is being used as a weapon of organizational mass destruction. The company wants to lay off a bunch of people and I’m on the list. Instead of making it about numbers there is an initiative to put enough people under pressure to quit – often through criticism of the most vulnerable. And it could be my own paranoia that takes place in my brain. Find out what’s going on – you can’t make a rational decision without knowing the facts.

7.  Turn criticism to your advantage. This may be a situation that is an opportunity for you to gain greater credibility and respect by how you handle yourself under fire. Be sure that you are a part of the organization’s  feedback process.  Make sure that your boss’s evaluation is up to date. Participate in 360-degree feedback initiatives.  Develop a documented record of great performance.  With that record, it will be much more difficult for people to destabilize your career with accusations.

8.  Master the art of managing feedback. Become the kind of leader who is admired even by his or her worst critics for the way you handle yourself when you are criticized. The leaders we most admire are those who are unflappable – you can’t make them sweat. When criticized, they smile instead of frown. It’s not a sign that they don’t care or are too stupid to understand the serious charge that has been leveled against them. It’s just that their body language is relaxed, their tone is level, and they are in a problem-solving mode. They simply want to solve whatever is going on that people have reacted negatively to. In this way, you get a reputation for playing in a bigger league with a big team and the best players. You are ready to lead.

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