I had hired Clara into an executive trainee program in a Fortune 500 company. She was bright, well-educated, and highly motivated. After three months, it was time for her performance evaluation from Mike, her supervisor. He was a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately guy: high expectations, rare praise.
At the meeting, Mike opened with, “Clara, you’ve been working hard but it took longer for you to finish this project than I anticipated. I was hoping for a more in-depth financial analysis.” As the negative feedback continued, Clara’s eyes dampened. Was Mike’s assessment accurate? I couldn’t tell, but it was inconsistent with what I’d heard elsewhere. However, that was of little consequence. If this was Mike’s perception, Clara had to manage it.
Suddenly Mike’s tone changed. He’d noticed Clara’s welling tears and backed off. Muttering some inanities, he quickly ended the session.
Was this a successful evaluation? Hardly. Clara needed Mike’s feedback, and more importantly, she was banished from his team forever. She’d taken her supervisor’s comments personally and felt devastated by them. And that hurt her career.
Learn From Criticism—Then Let It Go
Clara’s reaction, though damaging, is common among women, who generally find it more difficult to deal with criticism than men do. This comes from disparate lessons that each gender learns during childhood. Boys spend far more time practicing sports than actually playing. The coach’s criticism is a salient element of practice. The feedback can be neutral—“Hold the bat higher”—or it can be quite pointed—“You’re always goofing off.” From this, boys learn that negative feedback is meant to improve their performance. It has little to do with who they are as people or the coach’s feelings toward them. The payoff: Winning the game.
Girls learn no such lessons in games they traditionally play. There is no particularly right or wrong way to play dolls or house since one doesn’t win at these activities. If girls do receive criticism, it’s usually in the order of, “Play nice!” “ Share your toys,” or “Don’t get dirty.” Because of these childhood play patterns, women don’t practice receiving criticism and never learn to associate it with skill building. Most importantly, they don’t know how to separate someone’s negative perceptions from who they are as people—like Clara, they take criticism as total and personal. They feel attacked. Hence the tears.
How to deal with criticism that comes your way? I say, draw a box around it and then let it go. You can do this in three steps:
- Tell yourself, “The criticism is this person’s opinion about this behavior at this time.”
- Consider the source of the criticism. Analyze if the attacker was motivated by a need to undermine you, or a need to help you.
- Figure out what you need to learn from this event and then drop it.
This last point is key. If you can’t let go of the criticism, several things can happen:
- It may damage your relationships with others. (You can obsess about it and read into a coworker’s behavior a negative agenda.)
- It can undermine your colleagues’ confidence in your abilities. (Men may perceive you as weak if you “can’t take the heat” or “learn from your mistakes.”)
- It can put you at risk of further attacks. (Once a man realizes you’re vulnerable, he may attack you again—just part of his competitive game.)
- It can reinforce negative self-talk (a debilitating habit that undermines confidence).
My best advice? Learn from the criticism and then just let it go.
Make the Most of Praise
Ironically, just as women have difficulty dealing with criticism, they also have a hard time accepting praise. How often have we heard a complimented woman say, “Oh this old thing?” or “I really didn’t have to work on it all that much.” She may divert attention from the accolade by changing the subject or redirecting the comment back to the praiser: “I couldn’t have done it without Kathy’s help.” or “You did a great job on your project too!”
Some of this may come from what I call the "Power Dead-Even Rule." Women are raised in a flat society where no one girl is anointed the winning doll player—and those who deign to take the lead are often called “bossy” and ostracized. In this kind of social structure, a praise-giver elevates the person praised. In order to restore the equilibrium, the girl receiving the compliment must make light of it, or she’ll be considered “conceited.”
Practice Extending the Praise
Unfortunately, these rules don’t apply in the workplace. Among men, an appropriate response to a compliment is to accept it graciously: “Thanks. I’m glad you appreciate it!” “Gee, it was no big deal,” gets you nowhere. In fact, depending on the situation, you may benefit by extending the compliment the way a man would. A manager may say to Fred, “Great project. Everyone is talking about it!” Rather than, “Oh it was nothing,” Fred might say, “Thanks. The data were more difficult to analyze than expected. We were pleased to come in under budget. Yes, it did come out rather well.” When you extend the praise, you intensify its impact and help others remember your achievements.
Should you ask for praise if your supervisor is withholding? Unfortunately, this may make you appear needy or weak. In this case, it’s best to share successes with your peers. Employees can get great satisfaction from knowing their colleagues appreciate their efforts, even if the head honcho refuses to acknowledge them.
About the Authors
Pat Heim, PhD, is CEO of The Heim Group, a consulting firm that provides management and organizational development services to private industry and federal/state agencies. Formerly with Rockwell International and American Medical International, Dr. Heim has authored four best selling books: Hardball for Women, Smashing the Glass Ceiling, Learning to Lead and the most recent release In the Company of Women: Why We Hurt Each Other & How to Stop.
Susan Murphy, PhD, is a business/organizational consultant with extensive corporate leadership, academic and consulting experience. She has authored or co-authored numerous books, including Qualitative Approaches to Management (1994) and In the Company of Women with Pat Heim. She may be reached at The Heim Group.