How to Take Criticism Without Getting Defensive

The news won't always be good when your boss lets you know how you're doing. Here's how to respond.

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Alison Green
If your manager takes the time to give you constructive criticism, responding defensively is the worst thing you can do.

I once managed a woman who responded to any constructive criticism by throwing up an impenetrable wall and insisting she knew what she was doing. As her boss, I knew her performance needed work—and her refusal to hear what I was saying made it impossible for her to get the help she needed to improve. I finally asked her one day: "When you picture yourself 10 years from now in your career, you probably picture yourself knowing more than you do now, having more skills, and generally having advanced, right? How do you think that happens if you don't let yourself learn things along the way?" She seemed genuinely shocked.

She was an extreme case, but I frequently see people deny themselves the chance to evolve and get better at what they do because they don't want to hear anything critical. When their manager suggests improvement in some area, they're so focused on defending themselves that they miss out on the value of what's being said.

When your manager gives you feedback, try the following:

• Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input.

• Don't brush it off. Responding with a brusque "OK" and nothing more makes it look as if you're just interested in getting out of your boss's office. At a minimum, say something like: "I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me."

• Don't be defensive. You're not in a courtroom, and your manager isn't looking to you to defend yourself. She's looking for signs that you're hearing what she's saying and taking it into account. For instance, look at the difference in these two responses:

Defensive: "I'm really upset to hear this! I was working on x and z, and if I had done what you were asking, those never would have been finished on time!"

Open/nondefensive: "I'm glad you're telling me this. I've been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?"

• If you genuinely disagree with the criticism you're hearing, and you're sure it's not just your ego getting in the way, it's OK to say that. But it's all in how you say it and what tone you use. For instance, you might say: "I hadn't realized it was coming across that way, so I'm glad to know. From my perspective, it seems like _____." (Fill in the blank with whatever your perspective is.)

Be glad your manager is giving you feedback. Plenty don't bother, and they leave you to wonder why you can't get the raise or promotion you want. The managers who take the time to give you honest feedback are the ones you want to work for.

Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in Maxim, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.