Analyze This

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week
Constructive criticism is a crucial tool. Some advice on how to give it, how to take it

By now, just about every manager has gotten the message about the importance of delivering timely, candid feedback. But very little is said about the art of receiving it.

Constructive criticism is a crucial tool in gloomy economic times. Frankly, I rarely meet individuals who are really good at giving others an appraisal. But no surprise, here for most of us it’s still easier to give this kind of feedback than to get it.

I’m often asked by boards of directors to gather and deliver feedback to CEOs, whose positions tend to isolate them. The best of them embrace the experience, because they’re starved for this kind of information. Others, and not just those in the corner office, aren’t capable of digesting or ultimately using the critical comments they hear about their performance or behavior.

Granted, sometimes the problem is with the way such critiques are delivered (more on that later). But in my experience, the biggest obstacle to absorbing feedback is a recipient’s narcissism. We all have this trait in varying doses. But for some it’s a serious problem, one that makes them feel inappropriately wounded or humiliated by any criticism. Their reaction is to get angry or dismissive or to employ other defenses. One CEO I worked with always agreed instantly with any negative feedback I conveyed, implying that he was so self-aware he wasn’t being told anything new. By brushing me off, he successfully deflected the criticisms, but also missed an opportunity to learn from them.

Another defense can be to reject criticism because of the way it’s delivered. I don’t condone obnoxiously conveyed feedback. But I believe it can contain a germ of truth. And a harshly expressed assessment may also be a sign that a colleague or boss has been long frustrated by an individual’s refusal to hear anything negative.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one the best ways to ease the sting of criticism is to ask for it on a regular basis. Think of it as preemptive action, a strategy that will help you learn, in doses you can handle, how you are experienced by others. It’s a healthy way to gain a sense of control over being critiqued.