Nobody likes being criticized, but learning to accept criticism is a critical skill for success. If received appropriately, criticism can help you grow and develop your skills and abilities. Fear of the sting of negative feedback can hold you back from reaching your potential. But while some people seem to let criticism roll off their back, others have thinner skin and seem to crumble at negative feedback.
Here’s how to develop thicker skin so you can learn to use criticism to your advantage.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR REACTION MEANS
When you receive negative feedback, does your heart start racing, your palms sweat and your muscles tense up? For some individuals, negative feedback can trigger a fight-or-flight response; this is the biological response that our brains have to a threat in our environment. It’s what happened to our ancestors when they spotted a bear, for example.
“The problem is sometimes our fight-or-flight is activated because we evaluate a situation as dangerous, but there is not any actual danger associated with it,” says Dr. Brooke Wachtler, a psychologist and president/founder of BEW Consulting and Training. Receiving criticism may not pose a real physical threat to our safety, but your emotional brain can certainly perceive it that way. You may think that negative feedback from your boss means that your job is at stake and worry about how you’re going to pay your bills if you get fired. Understanding what’s happening in your brain can help you to process your reaction and cope effectively.
CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT IT
“We feel how we think” says Wachtler. Negative criticism, she argues, is not what causes the emotional reaction, but rather, it’s how we think about the criticism that causes the reaction. This explains why different people have different reactions to criticism; why some seem able to let criticism roll off their backs while others feel like their world is ending. Our brains react differently to the feedback based on how we each interpret it. Changing how you think about receiving feedback starts with your inner dialogue.
Do you jump to feeding yourself negative thoughts after receiving criticism such as “I’m not cut out for this job” or “I’m such a loser”? This kind of catastrophic thinking is what triggers that fight-or-flight response. Instead, telling yourself repeatedly that you are capable will help you to stop going to that extreme place the next time you receive negative feedback.
DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET
Someone with a fixed mindset might view criticism more as the end of time, or even avoid situations in which they could receive negative feedback. They are more likely to dismiss the criticism or agree with it but not do anything to change because they believe they are who they are and they aren’t capable of changing.
By contrast, someone with a growth mindset is more likely to view any feedback, whether positive or negative, as part of learning and growing. “Someone who values growth and learning may still have a negative reaction to receiving criticism, however, they may be better able to bounce back and cope effectively,” says Wachtler.
DON’T EQUATE YOUR VALUE AS A PERSON WITH THE FEEDBACK
People with thin skin tend to define themselves by other people’s opinions of them. Receiving negative feedback can lead them to think they’re a complete failure. “Separating who you are as a person from feedback that you receive is helpful in remaining calm and thinking through your response to negative feedback, as well as finding utility in it,” says Wachtler.
LOOK FOR SITUATIONS TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK
Part of overcoming the fear of receiving criticism is to continually expose yourself to situations in which you may receive negative feedback. Take a course in something that is outside your professional field or participate in a professional development program such as Toastmasters where you will be continually evaluated. Repeatedly exposing yourself to the possibility of criticism can help you to realize that you are capable of receiving feedback, even if it’s negative, and can learn from the experience.
Whether you have a formal leadership development plan in-house or not, there are some important ways those in supervisory and management roles can support developing leaders, says leadership development consultant Robb Holman, author of Lead the Way: Inside Out Leadership Principles for Business Owners and Leaders. Companies invest in leadership and personality assessments and other tools and programs, and may not follow through or revisit them consistently. But there are several ways that management teams can support developing leaders on a daily basis, he says.
KNOW WHO THEY ARE
Leadership development starts with understanding the individual, says Kim Turnage, PhD, director, leadership consultant with Talent Plus, Inc., and coauthor of Managing to Make a Difference: How to Engage, Retain, and Develop Talent for Maximum Performance. Get to know what motivates them, what their goals are, and what interests them both in their work and outside the office, she advises.
“All of those things are part of understanding who that person is and having the kind of relationship that inspires discretionary effort in people—and that discretionary effort is those things that people can do that go above and beyond regular expectations,” she says. When you can inspire and align discretionary effort with what your business goals are, both the individual and the company benefit, she says.
GET GOOD AT CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Conflict exists in every workplace. Whether it’s disagreement over career progression or a difference of opinion about the next steps on a project, conflict can either sap energy and damage relationships, or it can be resolved in a healthy manner with a better outcome as the result. If you’ve done a good job at developing a diverse organization with different viewpoints, healthy conflict resolution skills are essential to developing leaders, Holman says.
He adds that conflict resolution has three aspects:
- The need for self-assertion
- Active listening skills
- An understanding of and interest in collaboration
“We’re just not good at listening because we think we know what people should do, and we just want to go in there and say, ‘This is what you should do and how you should do it,’” he says. “What does it mean to actually listen to the other side, the other party, without trying to chime anywhere along the way?” Holman says that role playing can help aspiring leaders get better at these skills.
Having a measure of autonomy to make decisions in the workplace is a way to both identify leaders and help them develop, Turnage says. In every culture, there are people who do what’s expected of them and not much more, she says. “And then there are people who just naturally step forward and take more responsibility, take more initiative. Those are the people who have that real leadership potential,” she says.
Look for ways to give employees more opportunities to solve problems, come up with ideas, or otherwise exert their influence in the workplace. Then, spend more time with the people who rise to the challenge, she says. It’s the “80/20 rule” applied to leadership development. These aspiring leaders are identifying themselves through their actions. Pay attention and invest in them accordingly, she says.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH COACHING
A key element of leadership development is coaching, Holman says. Coaches can accelerate leadership development by providing guidance and helping aspiring leaders develop their own skill sets. Unfortunately, some people need to learn to accept that they need such guidance—or it’s simply not available to them. In fact, the Global Leadership 2018 report found that there is a mismatch when it comes to coaching and leadership development: External coaching is the No. 1 leadership development tool high-potential leaders want, while it’s ranked 8th on the list of what organization leaders think they need. More seminars and courses is on the top of organizations’ list of development tools.
Helping your next generation of leaders see the value of coaching and equipping them with the ability to seek out the coaches they need can enable them to get help quicker, Holman says. “I find the most gifted coaches may know the answer, but they ask the critical questions so the one on the other side has their own epiphany, and what happens is, the other side begins to rediscover certain things themselves by asking a question,” he says. It teaches them a new way to discover their own insights, he adds.