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Learning and Growing from Constructive Criticism from an Employee

Even leaders can gain valuable insights into their own shortcomings by listening to employees who have feedback to give—but as a leader, how do you accept, learn from, and grow with constructive criticism from an employee?

Photo by Christina Morillo
Photo by Christina Morillo

Being criticized is never a fun experience. It makes most people feel attacked, insufficient, and defensive. No one likes to hear negative things about their job performance, whether they are at the top of the company or just starting out. It’s a common human response to take any critical comment as a personal affront, but as a leader, you must manage and move past that initial reaction.

Some criticism can even help give you the tools to grow and develop the necessary skills you need to be a successful leader. The criticism loop doesn’t only move one way, from leaders to employees. Even leaders can gain valuable insights into their own shortcomings by listening to employees who have feedback to give—but as a leader, how do you accept, learn from, and grow with constructive criticism from an employee?

Know the Difference between Destructive and Constructive Criticism

First, it’s crucial to know the difference between outright criticism for criticism’s sake and constructive feedback that can help you hone your leadership skills. Criticism that’s lobbed at a leader just for criticism’s sake can be frequent but not helpful. This kind of criticism can take the form of general comments that are delivered anonymously through employee channels or whispered in the hallways. The spirit of this kind of criticism is generally mean-hearted and geared to injure rather than help guide or improve.

It’s also common for this kind of destructive criticism to swing toward personal attacks—it could be that someone doesn’t like the type of suits you wear or thinks you’re not dedicated to the job because you had other, more pressing obligations that took you away from a scheduled meeting. Recognize that this sort of criticism is often fear-based, meaning that the person offering the criticism is lashing out because he or she is feeling attacked or insecure in some way. The old adage about the bully being the frightened one rings true even in corporate America. A lot of destructive criticism also tends to be levied anonymously. So it’s essential to consider the source when you listen to critics. If someone isn’t willing to own up to their criticism, it might be coming from a destructive motivation.

Constructive criticism, on the other hand, is the total opposite. It is often very specific and clear, and you usually know exactly who the criticism is coming from. Many times employees simply want to see the company succeed for the company’s and their own benefit—and, as I have written before, it’s crucial to listen to the things they have to say, especially when it comes to honing your leadership skills and inspiring your people to do good work. Listening to your employees may yield better business outcomes, too. It’s likely that one of your employees who has decided to criticize you has an innovative idea that could do wonders for the business, so be open to hearing the person out.

Constructive criticism must be specific and clear. In general, criticism that is broad and general indicates that the feedback is more destructive than constructive. If the employee can’t (or refuses to) point to a specific incident as the source of the criticism, then it’s likely you are dealing with someone who does not have the best interests of the company or you at heart.

Constructive criticism is also generally delivered in a nonconfrontational way. If an employee has a grievance and genuinely wants to be heard, they will often carve out time to give the feedback face-to-face. The approach will be nonaggressive, although their tone will often be blunt, but not intentionally cruel. It’s important to recognize (and speak up) when and if the tone changes and becomes attacking. Just because an employee has decided to speak up about their thoughts about your leadership style doesn’t mean abusive behavior should be permitted.

Take Constructive Criticism Gracefully: Listen Actively

When faced with constructive criticism, it’s essential to take it gracefully. One of the key ways to do so is to stop whatever else you are doing and actually listen to what the employee is saying. That means that you need to put down your phone, stop looking at email, and actively engage the employee.

The best way to actively listen when someone is giving you feedback is first to take a deep breath and center yourself. Since no one likes to be criticized, it’s essential to bring self-awareness to the table so that you can manage your responses and reactions. Taking a deep breath (or a few) can help you feel grounded and stable and make you more present in the moment to truly hear what the person has to say.

It also pays to speak up and ask questions when something isn’t clear. Listen to the criticism the same way you would if it were your boss giving you feedback. If you have questions about what is being said, use the mirroring technique to reflect what you think you heard back to the person levying the critique and ask the employee to clarify if you don’t understand something.

Finally, when listening actively, it pays to do your best to avoid becoming defensive. While it’s probably the single most difficult skill to master when accepting criticism, this is truly of utmost importance. To manage your reactions, take the time you need to process what is being said. If that means asking for a moment to gather your thoughts or setting another meeting to follow up on critical points later, it’s important that you keep your natural defensive reactions in check when receiving feedback from an employee. Losing your cool could do more damage to both your success as a leader and your future at the company, so be sure that you set boundaries to keep it together.

Take Constructive Criticism Gracefully: Speak Up

It is essential to speak up when you are taking feedback from an employee. Using your communication skills to reflect back what takeaways you get from the feedback and to discuss how the feedback makes you feel is really important toward accepting criticism from your employees.

While it sounds like you’ll be making yourself more vulnerable, in fact, you’ll show your employees that you are willing to be approachable and human. As I have written before, it’s necessary to admit when you are wrong in order to build a loyal and hardworking staff. If your employees see that you are cool-headed under pressure (and that you take their feedback willingly), they will likely do better work and be more committed to your leadership in the long run.

Speaking up also means asking for help if you need to find support to make changes as a result of constructive criticism. Having a good business mentor who you can reach out to for support for your transformation is vital and can be a huge boon if you get feedback that is hard to work with. Be sure to leverage your connections and ask for help if you need it.

Take Constructive Criticism Gracefully: Get Clear About the Goals

One of the critical things you can do when receiving constructive criticism from employees is to get crystal clear about employees’ goals when they approach you with feedback. What are they trying to communicate to you? Where are they coming from? What is their purpose in bringing the concerns to you?

Asking these questions will help hone your strategy for how to address and even improve based on the criticism. Constructive criticism will always have a goal at its heart, whether it’s improved performance, better working conditions, or simply a more flexible dynamic. Anyone who comes to you with constructive criticism has a core goal to communicate to you. If you aren’t clear on what that is, use the skills outlined above to dig deeper and get to the heart of what is actually going on.

Once you know the employee’s goals, you can decide how (and whether) to move forward to improve the situation. Perhaps the employee coming to you has a solution to offer that will help you meet those goals. Maybe you can work with the employee to come to a great compromise. Either way, by getting to the heart of the matter, you show your employee that you are willing to work together as part of the team to make the change happen. Demonstrating this kind of leadership will inspire your employees and likely make you a stronger leader.

Accepting Constructive Criticism Will Help You Become a Better Leader

If you follow these steps and keep your cool when presented with criticism from an employee, you will ultimately become a better leader. Employees, in general, just want to be heard—and oftentimes, they want to be able to do the best job that they can. By listening to your employees’ constructive feedback, you might discover your blind spots that can be improved. That means that if you take employees’ constructive feedback to heart, you can and will become a better leader who inspires people to follow you wherever you lead. Doing good work on yourself eventually trickles down to your staff—and it inspires loyalty and hard work in those around you.

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