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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Handling Criticism at Work

You’re just out of college starting your first “real” job, and you feel on top of the world.  And then it will happen. You’ll pick up on it yourself, or maybe your boss will scold you for something, and you’ll realize: you’re still very much a freshman at life.

You can read how-to manuals, speak to mentors, and try your best, but you’re still going to mess up sometimes. And you may not even realize it—until you find yourself or your ideas being admonished, criticized, or just ignored.

During the first few months of my first job, I was in an important, all-day meeting with my new manager and several clients. Coming from school, I’d always thought that “participating” and offering your thoughts was how you demonstrated you were a smart and engaged team member. So, throughout the day, I offered my suggestions, pointers, and observations to our client. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until late afternoon when I realized that every time I opened my mouth, my boss shot me an evil look.

After the meeting was over and the clients had left, he snarled at me, “We didn’t hire you for your expertise—don’t speak in client meetings.”

I wasn’t used to getting in trouble in school, especially not for participating, so I was shocked at the response I got.

Looking back, my manager was right: the opinions I’d offered that day were not helping our team’s delicate client relationships. No, I didn’t like having my suggestions rejected like that—and he sure could have been nicer about it—but it was an experience I learned from.

When your idea or contribution gets shot down, don’t take it personally. I spoke with several professionals who shared their stories and advice about learning the hard way at work. Margaret, from Boston, says, “You need to think about criticism as objectively as possible—is it that you had an idea that was off-base?” If you realize your recommendation was off, let it go and move on. Margaret also suggests bouncing difficult situations or questions off of trusted friends.

Next, make sure you learn what to do differently in the future. In my case, I began to evaluate whether or not I had expertise on the subject at hand to offer before I spoke up in front of a client—for my company, client meetings were not the time to brainstorm.

Sam in New York shares another strategy: “I actually keep a little log of certain things, like ‘The European manager never likes the idea of his employees traveling to the States.’ This way, my suggestions are generally informed, and I don’t say or do something that I know will get shot down.”

If there is a deeper issue—if your boss never agrees with your suggestions or attacks you personally for them—it might be time to have a one-on-one discussion. But realize that most criticism in the work place is not personal, and don’t read too much into it, especially early on.

Seeing your ideas rejected is part of the learning process—a challenge to overcome and a mistake not to repeat, but not a setback to worry about. With any luck, before you know it, you’ll have graduated on to a new set of skills, a thicker skin, and a better understanding of your professional environment.

Photo of coworkers courtesy of Shutterstock.