How Do You Take Critical Feedback?

There are times in all our lives when someone gives us negative feedback or criticism that makes us cringe. How do you handle criticism when you get a negative online review, an angry customer, a frustrated employee? Here are some ways to make it easier.

Boy, the internet is filled with bottomless rabbit holes, isn’t it?  But sometimes, you hit upon something that really strikes you as both entertaining and instructive.

I was recently sent a link to a Reddit thread.  A manager had a challenging problem with an employee who had gone to the HR department about the treatment of the two office cats.

Yes, I said cats.

The story boils down to this.  “Pam” felt that her manager had made a comment that she considered racist towards one breed of cat over another (Jean and Jorts, the cats), and she went to HR demanding action and racial sensitivity training before she would return.

The manager turned to Reddit asking if he had indeed been insensitive, and how he should proceed.  It is a well written, delightful read because he deals so respectfully about what is arguably a ludicrous situation. He then followed up with a second post about how he handled the situation.

And believe it or not, there are some great takeaways for when we all need to give or take challenging feedback and have a fundamental difference of opinion from an employee.

These take-aways also help deal with negative online reviews, or customer feedback. It’s easy to get bristly when we’re confronted, but it’s not going to improve the situation or endear you to the feedback provider. 

Take a deep breath and follow these helpful tips.

Pam had some legitimate concerns, in her eyes, and regardless of how the manager felt about the situation, her feedback and concerns needed to be taken seriously.

It’s easy to get emotional and reactionary when you receive criticism or negative feedback and that makes it hard for either party to communicate and problem solve effectively.  We end up in our “fight or flight” mode. It fires the part of our brain called the amygdala, which makes us unable to think clearly.  

Take a deep breath. Take some time. Take a walk around the block.

The Manager was smart turning to a community he trusted.  Reddit may not be your outlet, but trusted fellow business colleagues, your spouse, your partner, a manager can be a great way to talk through the feedback and formulate a plan that is constructive and not reactionary.

As well, even though the concerns were related to cats, and not actual business functions or Pam’s performance of her job, he took her concerns seriously. Just because they may not be perceived as important by you, they are important in the complainant’s eyes.

The act of acknowledging our mistakes is a crucial skill to build. 

We all miss things, carry biases, and sometimes we can’t see a situation objectively or don’t have all the information. Despite a tense and difficult situation, this manager was able to acknowledge that he hadn’t noticed the Jean and Jorts weren’t being treated equitably.

At one point he writes: “Jean’s ‘staff bio’ has a photo of Jean, while Jorts’ bio has a photo of a sweet potato. I did not actually know either cat had a staff bio, but we will use a photo of Jorts instead of a sweet potato.”

Receiving criticism is hard, but we need to remain open to changing our mind with new information. Asking questions to gain more insight into the issue it important and ensuring that there is a two-way conversation, not a one-way series of requests, creates effective problem solving.

One great question is “Tell me more about that”.  And then listen.

In the end, you need to find a solution that makes BOTH parties happy, you and the employee. The solutions need to be fair for all parties (even cats), to ensure they feel appreciated and valued, and clarity about boundaries for behavior that correlates to roles/responsibilities.

“HR suggested changing Pam’s duties so she is ‘in charge’ of the cats. This I refused, the cats are my staff, not Pam’s. I think Pam was well-intended but actually not meeting the needs of either Jean or Jorts, so they remain under my supervision.”

There are other specific issues he acknowledged and solved. But he also set some clear boundaries for Pam, as she had not factored in the ways she was contributing negatively to the situation. 

Considering fairness to all parties is important, but there also needs to be boundaries. This manager protected Jorts’ needs and did not just relinquish his responsibility of the cats based on Pam’s perceived injustices. It is important that you draw lines around the things that you want to protect or retain control over.

Pam and Jorts’ manager modeled the kind, clear and actionable response to what could have resulted in losing a valuable employee. When you are struggling to find and keep staff, ensuring that your employees feel that their concerns will be dealt with respectfully and effectively goes a long way to retention.

The saga of Jean and Jorts (the cats) and their fellow human employee Pam is here.  

The update after the writer/manager deals with the problem is here:

The one way we can help you avoid criticism in the first place with this is to survey your customers to give you honest feedback about your business, services and employees – this helps you understand where you can improve. Plus, we can help you get more positive online reviews to bury any negative ones way down the line, while moving you up the rankings in your city. Sadly, we can’t help directly with employee frustrations or a personal critique. Hopefully you can take away some strategies from the tale of Jean and Jorts and use them the next time you are confronted with a criticism.

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