How to Handle Shocking Criticism and Save Your Job

It's human nature to want to defend yourself, but that can keep you from honest analysis.

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Alison Green
Your manager has just told you that she has serious concerns about your work. You're shocked--you thought you were doing a good job and you didn't see this coming. You're questioning whether she's crazy, has a personal vendetta against you, or if there's some other agenda you don't know about.

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Stop. It's human nature to want to defend ourselves against criticism. But focusing on your defense—or the idea that your boss is crazy/tyrannical/wrong—can keep you from an objective analysis of whether there's any truth to the complaints. I've seen a sad number of cases where the things that got someone fired could have been fixed if the person had truly heard the criticism, rather than put up walls and refused to process it. Even if your boss is a tyrant, you do yourself a disservice by not hearing the feedback with an open mind. 

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After all, there are only two possibilities here: 

1. Your manager is right. 

2. Your manager is wrong. 

And the solution is the same in both situations -- hear her out with an open mind. Why? Because if your manager is right, the worst thing you can do is to put up defenses that will keep you from truly understanding how you could do a better job. People who do this end up getting fired. And if your manager is wrong, you still need to understand where she's coming from, because this is someone who has a lot of control over your quality of life and your job security. Why wouldn't you want to understand how she sees you, as best you can? 

So you must talk with her. Tell her that you understand that she's unhappy with your work and you'd like to get a better understanding of what she wants you doing differently. Then listen with an open mind. Don't focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what she tells you. If she's vague, ask her to help you understand by giving you a specific example or two. When she does, remember: Don't focus on defending yourself. You are just trying to understand what her concerns are with your work. (In fact, read and practice the advice here on hearing critical feedback.) 

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Now, once that's over, hopefully you have a better idea of how she views your work. Spend some time thinking about it. Don't react--even in your own mind--immediately. Let the information sit for a while. Start asking yourself why she sees it that way. Is there any truth to it? If there's not any truth to it, is there an explanation for why a reasonable person could perceive it that way? 

The goal here is for one of the following to happen:

1. You'll realize that she's pointing out things in your work that you can or should change, and you can work on changing them. If this happens, let her know.

2. You realize that there's a mistake in how she perceives your work, and you can bring it into the open and hopefully correct it.

3. You'll realize that she's pointing out things in your work that you don't particularly want to change, and you can decide to look for other work.

4. You'll realize that after giving her feedback a fair hearing, you just can't see any merit in what she's saying, and so the two of you are at an impasse. This likely means it's a bad fit and you'll know to look elsewhere. 

The point here is that--whether you think she's a jerk or not--what you need to know is where you stand with her and why, so that you can make good decisions for yourself. That's a lot more effective than just stewing and feeling resentful, helpless, or angry.  

Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.