How Top Performers Take Criticism

handle-critism-Hendrie Weisinger“When I am criticized, I feel ____.”

If you are like most people in the working world, you complete the aforementioned sentence with words like, “hurt, angry, defensive, dejected, disappointed, embarrassed, put-down, failure, and no good, resentful” or other words that communicate the same meaning.  Indeed, few of us come home, call up a friend, or tell our partner, “Hey, I had a great day today… I got criticized.”

Yet, there is now a significant amount of data that indicates a hallmark of high-performers and effective CEOs, executives and managers lies in their ability to take criticism productively. They are not born with the ability; rather they seem to follow four steps – think of them as instructions for taking criticism productively.

Increase your receptivity to criticism. You can’t use criticism to your advantage if you are not going to at least listen to it. Align your definition of criticism with its historical helpful intent by programming yourself with the thought “criticism is information that can help me grow.” You might even write the statement on an index card as a reminded that it is your best interest to listen to how other people perceive you and your work. The more you internalize this thought, the less likely you will respond to criticism with defensiveness, anger, and hurt.

Appraise the criticism. Being receptive to criticism gives you the opportunity to evaluate what you are being told and to decide whether it is in your best interest to act upon it.  High-performers use multiple criteria to help them decide:

  • How important is the information to my life/job?
  • Is the source of the criticism credible?
  • Do other people agree with the criticism?
  • How much effort is required to respond productively?
  • What are the benefits to me?

When you appraise the validity of the criticisms you receive, you will note that the criteria impact each other. For example, you might rate a criticism pertaining to your presentation skills more important if it comes from your colleague or boss, than your assistant. It might be that it takes a lot of energy to resolve a particular criticism, but if the benefits are enormous, you’re willing; however, if a lot of energy is required with few benefits to you, you may decide the effort isn’t worth it.

The real value in appraising the criticism using these criteria is that it slows down your response and minimizes the chances that you will dismiss criticism impulsively when it fact, it could be very helpful. 

Acknowledge your appraisal. A colleague criticizes your style for running a meeting.  You don’t get defensive, you tell her, “I’ll think about it.” After appraising her comments, you decide your current style needs not be changed.

Disagreeing with criticism is not the same as becoming defensive, but if you do not let the source of the criticism know that you have given careful thought to her thoughts, she will feel you blew it off and feel dismissed. High-performers show respect and appreciation to their critics by sharing how they evaluated the criticism provided. They want their critics to know that they are not getting defensive, but rather, simply perceive the situation differently. This often leads to a productive exchange of viewpoints, and often in the case of high-performers, new insights are gleaned that lead him or her to agree with their critic.

In effect, the high-performer has given their critic one more opportunity to make their case for change. Similarly, the critic may also be illuminated to the point where he or she realizes that their criticism was not valid. Either way, communication is enhanced and helps integrate the process of giving and taking criticism into the relationship.

Take Action. What if the criticism is valid – it’s in your best interest to act upon it? If this is the case, high-performers distinguish themselves by taking steps to make sure they make the necessary changes/improvements that the criticism demands.

If the criticism can only be actualized by changing how he or she runs a meeting the high-performer develops a plan to do so. If the criticism of his or her marketing report is sound, the high-performer makes the adjustments, starting from scratch if necessary.

In other words, high-performers do more than say they are going to change or improve – they actually do. Often, high performers enlist the help of their critics by asking them to point out when they perceive change/improvement and solicit their ideas on how best to resolve the criticism.

Superstar and businesswoman extraordinaire Jane Fonda, sums it up: “I welcome criticism. That’s how I grow!”


Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D. is a celebrated and influential psychologist, pioneer in the field of pressure management, the originator of criticism training and the author of two New York Times bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 Companies and government agencies and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT. His work has been featured several times in The New York Times Sunday Business Section, and numerous popular magazines. His article for The Wall Street Journal, So You’re Afraid To Criticize Your Boss, was selected as one of their 60 best management articles and reprinted in Dow Jones on Management. He has appeared on more than 500 radio and television shows including Oprah, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose, and was the featured expert for 5 consecutive days on The Today Show for their anger management special. His newest book and NY Times Bestseller is Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most You can learn more about Dr. Weisinger and his new empowering E Workshop Experience, Performing Under Pressure at

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