Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Take it on the chin and learn

Giving constructive criticism is a great skill and done well by a few people. I suggest accepting criticism and seeing it as a positive learning experience is even harder.

I recently had some negative feedback in one of my workshops and the first reaction was of feeling upset, disheartened and actually, pretty miserable. Throughout my life my initial reaction to criticism has often been to ‘catastrophise.’ That word was given to me many years ago by a good friend and professional colleague who is a highly regarded counsellor in mental health services.

So .... having received some negative feedback this meant (in my head) I was less than perfect which is of course unacceptable to me. Trevor has to be perfect all the time – anything less is not good enough. This unrealistic state of mind lasted for a day or two until I spoke to someone about the actual points of criticism. I was able to
look rationally at the points raised. Despite the fact my heart was wishing to reject the criticism, my head told me there was in fact some validity in the comments.

I was able to give my responses in a calm, measured well thought through way and this was accepted. After the discussion I felt better and my ego was less bruised. I had learned some stuff for future workshops that will help me.

Learning had taken place!

My main point is that actually, we are not perfect, at least I am not. You may be.

It is really important that we take criticism very seriously – but not too seriously so that we beat ourselves up. We also need to find ways to learn from criticism and perhaps most important; we should never rubbish the data.

In that particular workshop I looked carefully at all the evaluation feedback forms from 12 people. Only one had poor scores or comments. The other 11 evaluation forms were very high scores with favourable comments – some extremely favourable.

One key message from me is to dig deep into your evaluation. Don’t simply believe the headlines. Learn from the 'outlier' comments and scores.

Be happy and content with the great comments. Give serious consideration to the ones that are critical before you dismiss the writer as a bad person who doesn’t know what they are talking about.

I hope this makes sense – criticism is never well received but we can turn it around.

I’d love to hear your experiences and stories on this.


Dave Wheeler said...


There is much value in what you are saying. I have come to look at feedback, both as a trainer and leader, as invaluable. It is in large part the reason I teach and lead as I do. It both validates and identifies opportunities. "What do you think" are indeed the four most important words you can ask in any organization...the feedback form is but one forum where that question can be answered.

It's terrific when one's head and heart go in the same direction. One persons perception doesn't define you for sure. Listen, learn and move on!

Great topic sir!

J.KANNAN said...

Accepting criticism in its right spirit and perspective, analysing it,shredding the ego in a person, then arrive at a conclusion is always better and will remove the bitter in one. After all the critic has his own view points which needs to be attended to and answered. May be we will learn new things from the critic and later on realise that the criticism was valid one.Whether the points of criticism was negative or positive is to be decided after thoroughly studying the points of view of the critic.

One has to be perfect at all times and anything less than perfection is not good for one is not to be accepted being wrong notion. "No man is without faults and every one of us owns our share of it" that's what the good old saying is.....Trevor you have agreed on this point in your presentation. We can learn many things out of a criticism after it is being analysed in the right perspective and move on towards right direction that will help us always-this is what I personally feel. Your last but one para conveys a true statement on criticism very well conveyed and finished.

And to me I always welcome criticism, and I review it, study through it in depth and convey my views back to the critic and 'am never upset with criticism.

And now to sum it up I place below "The pros & cons of criticism and believe, my beloved readers will like to read it.

Criticism...............It's pros & Cons.

It is easy to get angry with those who criticise you.
But it is better to listen and to consider what they have to say.
If the criticism is completely misdirected and unfounded, then you can simply let it go.

Yet often it can be valuable and productive to objectively consider what your critics are thinking.

The worst response to criticism is to become angry, insulted and defensive.
For by doing so, you actually give more power and credibility to that criticism. Instead, listen carefully and appreciatively to what your critics have to say.

Even if the criticism is decidedly negative, somewhere there are positive insights that you can gain from it.

Don't let your ego prevent you from learning something valuable. Being receptive to criticism strengthens your confidence and can improve your competence.

Choose to know and understand what others think of you.
Instead of getting angry and defensive over the words of others, choose to listen, consider and grow stronger because of them.


hucknjim said...


Again from the other side of the employer/employee divide I have this to offer. I too am one of those people who feels he always has to be perfect. However, recognizing this fault in myself has allowed me to accept constructive criticism because it helps me try to make my work as perfect as it can be. Perfection is an unattainable goal, but constructive as opposed to destructive criticism helps me aim for it. Better to aim at the sun and fail than to aim at the ground and succeed.


Trevor Gay said...

Dave – “What do you think” is a brilliant mantra and has become your signature my friend. Tom Peters has used this expression in his presentations and (as we would expect from Tom) he has always credited you with it – there are not many greater comments!

I know of your terrific reputation as a trainer and I know you exceed the evaluation scores of your peers so I always hear your message. Keep up the good work.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi JK – Your advice is welcomed as always. Accepting criticism is of course always ‘work in hand’ for most of us.

More often than not an initial reaction will not the same reaction after taking time to reflect.

The key therefore as far as I can see is to take some time to reflect rather than act on an initial emotional feeling.

As I say this is all ‘work in hand’

I guess I might be an expert by the time I am approximately 100 years old. :-)

Trevor Gay said...

Hi John – Thanks again for your comments. We have things in common. I think it is best to admit our ‘faults’ because that is surely the first step to repairing the fault. Maybe ‘fault’ is a strong word – I prefer to think of it as a personal development requirement.

People often say things like
“We have to separate the criticism from the person”


“It’s is not about you as a person”

Both of those things are perfectly valid statements of course. I think however, most people are hurt by criticism before they can rationalise it and grow – what do you think about that?

J.KANNAN said...

Hi Trevor,

The best thing to do is reflect first on criticism then re-act if necessary.If the reflections of the person convinces one consciously,he can better avoid unsavoury disputes and debates.

Come on Trevor, you are already an expert or else you would have remained with NHS for, plus three decades in position successfully-Therefore your guess is wrong!!!!! and you got to agree with me on this.

I still re-captulate your fine words and data of good number of pages on "Leadership presentation" for NHS as a part of your project, I think now its nearly nine years ago- You have become a real expert from then on.


Trevor Gay said...

Hi JK - I have become better as I have got older in accepting criticism and dealing with it positively and yes of course you are right about my experience.

A great discussion and still more learning!

Thank you again.

mark jf said...

I, of course, was born perect and have radiated absolute perfection for the last half century. Some people have failed to realise that any erors on my part are deliberate, designed to see who would spot them and comment first. Certain misguided people have lobbed criticism my way without realising that my behaviour was merely the trigger to test their own powers of analysis, explanation and diplomacy in identifying it. People, huh?!

Fortunately, I am able to skim through such 'criticism' and, in a spirit of becoming perfecter than what I actually is, sometimes I even take it on board.

Dan Gunter said...

Those of us involved in any form of leadership and leadership coaching, consulting, etc. no doubt realize by now that we are not involved in an "exact science." So where does that put is? Try the realm of "art."

Yes, we have ferreted-out, learned, and developed many skills and techniques over our years, as would an artist learn the different tools of his trade, such as the differences between putting oil paints, charcoals, or other things on paper vs. canvas vs. a brick wall or other material. A good artist has a good "command" of the tools.

But a GREAT artist knows much more than just the tools. He is able to visualize the message. Not just a picture, but the message he is trying to create.

A great artist also knows that not everyone will "get it." Furthermore, he knows that there will be times when it is important to hear what others have to say. If he is endeavoring to share a very specific message, seeing and hearing the reactions and feedback of others can help to fine-tune that message so that it comes through clearer, stronger -- with more impact.

Great artists tend to have difficulty taking feedback at times, perceiving would-be constructive criticism as a "bad review." It has been said "Talent pleases itself." Well, if being a consultant or in some capacity an advisor or aid to such I am also an artist, I need to know how I can better accomplish my objective and make my "art" more meaningful and effective. Nobody can answer that better than the ones on the receiving end. Well, other more skilled artists are also an excellent source of feedback.

Thus, I realize that as hard as it can be from a "pride" standpoint, it is wise to listen to constructive criticism and feedback. True, there may be some -- as Trevor described -- that may not be as devastating and harsh as they feel at first. In such cases, consider the context, weigh the information properly, and if it is useful, take advantage of it. If it is not useful or relevant, say "Thank you" for the feedback anyway and move on.

All good artists know that you can't please every person every time. Heaven knows if Picasso were alive today and living in my hometown, he'd be a "starving artist" for real if he were depending on me to buy his paintings, as they simply don't suit my taste. I have no doubt that his paintings are very special and priceless historical treasures, but that doesn't mean I don't have to like them personally. If he were alive and I told him so, I would hope he wouldn't quit painting simply because I didn't like his style. Others shouldn't be denied the opportunity to enjoy it. On the other hand, if he was specifically trying to paint a picture to fit my personal needs and taste, it would be a different story, wouldn't it?

Trevor Gay said...

Mark – brilliant - you would make a great politician - there are plenty of vacancies right now. Good to know there at least two of us who are perfect in this world :- )

Trevor Gay said...

Dan- You are so right about Art– I just don’t ‘get’ a lot if it but something that I love, I really love!

One key is not to close our minds to improvement.

hucknjim said...


Both statements about criticism not being about you as a person are perfectly valid, and I agree that most people are hurt by criticism before they can rationalize it and grow.

On the other hand, as I implied in my original post, there is a difference between destructive and constructive criticism.

Destructive criticism by its very nature only tears a person down without offering any suggestion for improvement. It belittles and patronizes its victim. I've been on the receiving end but never more than a few times from the same person, because that's the time to stand up and say this isn't right, diplomatically of course.

Constructive criticism however offers the opportunity for growth. When my charge nurse or nurse manager points out an order I missed or a phone call someone has complained about I take it to heart. My feelings aren't hurt. It helps me do my job better.

So finally, after that long intro, I fear that many people have trouble distinguishing between destructive versus constructive criticism. That has been my experience, and it's a shame. They are missing out on an opportunity for growth.


Dan Gunter said...


You made some good points there. Perhaps it's a matter of the old "Count to 10" thing: get past the emotion and think critically about the criticism. It shouldn't be hard to figure out whether it's constructive or destructive and handle it accordingly; however, if emotion gets in the way, it really won't matter because you're not going to grow or improve from either kind at that point.

Trevor Gay said...

John – I’m sure you are right about people not distinguishing between destructive and constructive. I believe managers should not be promoted or appointed if they are unable to provide constructive feedback. Destructive criticism hurts everyone – especially the person receiving it. I believe the person giving destructive feedback also suffers - even though they may lack the personal insight to know that.

Dan - it is indeed an art when receiving criticism to differentiate between the two – I am definitely getting better as I get older! – Many times in my impetuous youth I would throw my toys out of the pram with hurt feelings!

hucknjim said...

Another great discussion here. Dan's comment and yours compel me to try to make another point.

There is a huge difference between self esteem and self confidence. Self esteem is bestowed by a social system of parenting and education that teaches people that they are wonderful and deserving only of praise. These are the people who I believe can't distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism.

Self confidence, on the other hand, is earned through a system of positive and negative feedback. Good actions are rewarded. Bad actions are first remarked upon in a constructive way in an effort to correct them and then punished if the first effort doesn't succeed. Ideally, this leads to a sense of responsibility. If I do well I can expect to be rewarded or at least praised. If I don't, I should expect to hear about it, again ideally in a constructive way.

All of the above is a gross oversimplification of course and perhaps exposes me as an old fogey, but it does illustrate the problems I see many of my younger coworkers have distinguishing between the two types of criticism. In fact, one twenty something coworker recently accused someone else of "making her feel bad about herself". She was joking, and it's to her credit that she recognized the absurdity of the statement. I laughed along with her.


Dan Gunter said...


I certainly could not have said it better myself. You're absolutely right. And in considering your comments, I can also see this being an issue with businesses, not just individuals.

If a customer is telling you he or she is dissatisfied, the typical knee-jerk reaction by some businesses is to go into the defensive mode. How often have we heard words like "Well, you can always take your business somewhere else?" That is defensive posturing based on pride.

On the other hand, if you pause a second, take a breath, and realize that the customer is still talking to you, it means he or she is giving you an opportunity. If they really WANTED to go do business with someone else, they could have already done so. Why didn't they? They obviously still WANT to do business with you. Here's your chance to seize an opportunity. It's the chance create what Ken Blanchard refers to as a "Raving Fan." If you view it and treat it as such, you now have the chance to step up and meet a customer's need. It's a chance for improvement. A chance to differentiate your company from the competition. A chance to seal a bond with a customer.

Trevor Gay said...

Wise words John – you are no ‘old fogy’ my friend. I’m sure you have been educated in the University of Hard Knocks just like me.

Trevor Gay said...

Dan - Thanks for that. In my experience the best companies love their customers as much as they love their employees.

Dan Gunter said...


You're welcome. In fact, it could be argued that the best companies make little distinction between their customers and employees. They are actually thankful to have both groups and treat them equally well.

Now I'm thinking that perhaps the ultimate perspective business owner would be to actually consider HIMSELF to be the "middleman" facilitating the connection between the employees and the customers.

There's a thought I haven't heard. Think I'll ponder that one a bit. I feel a blog entry waiting to happen ;-)

Trevor Gay said...

Dan - You are right - the most effective owners are 'middlemen' - look at Richard Branson - he loves and respects both employees and customers equally - a better role model I don't know of.

hucknjim said...


One last point to make. I do have a four year liberal arts college degree and value it highly for extending my interests over many areas and the ability to think critically. On the other hand, I did attend the University of Hard Knocks as well. That, more than anything, has taught me how to me good at my job.

And to Dan, that phone call which I mishandled actually happened. I learned of it from an email from my nurse manager. I responded with a sincere apology and gently corrected the misperceptions of what the caller thought I said. In my experience, people hear what they want to hear. A sincere apology can indeed create a fan of my hospital. Since I never heard anything else about it, I assume that my apology did the trick.


Trevor Gay said...

Hi John – congratulations on your fine arts degree.

I completed my MA Management (Healthcare) as a mature student 1996-98 at the University of Plymouth Business School.

I agree with you that academic study helps one to think critically. In my case it was 3 years of hard work through day release from my full time healthcare job.

I had to find the right balance between; being a husband; a father to my 3 children; home responsibilities; holding down my demanding full time 5 day senior management job in healthcare in 4 days per week: and of course doing the classroom study, numerous written assignments, the course work, my research and 20,000 word dissertation on leadership. I had to learn to be an effective juggler.

I never therefore ‘knock’ academic study – or anyone who has studied hard to obtain qualifications. Quite the opposite in fact - I totally empathise and recognise the demands of study having ‘been there’ myself for the most demanding 3 years of my adult life.

At the same time I also believe the University of Life is of at least equal value in producing the rounded person.

Have a great weekend John and thanks as always for your excellent input to my Blog.

Dan Gunter said...


Fortunately, 99% of the problems we humans face in business, relationships, and life in general can be dealt with via the use of communication.

Unfortunately, communication is one of the skills we work on developing the least, hence it tends to CAUSE 99% of the problems we deal with.


I share your respect for people who realize that there is much more to learning than what goes on in a formal classroom. As I mentioned to folks in a blog recently, the day I stop learning they can do what they want to with my cold, lifeless body.

Trevor Gay said...

One of my all time favourite quotes that is in every one of my presentations from the immortal GBS:

"The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished" - George Bernard Shaw

I was a complaints manager for 2 years of my healthcare career. My estimation is that 95% of the complaints I dealt with were to do with communication and very few were to do with technical competence of health professionals or standards of care.

Effective Communication doesn’t just ‘happen’ – it has to be worked at – look at any relationship that breaks down whether personal or professional or business. I reckon ANY problem can be overcome by effective communication.

As an example close to home for us in Britain look at the troubles in Northern Ireland. For over 25 years from 1969 people were killing each other and innocent civilians were being blown up both sides of the divide. And then the two sides started talking to each other thanks to John Major and Tony Blair.

For the last 10 years we have see no trouble.

At bad rimes, if communication is bad or non existent, we should not be surprised when things stay the same get worse.

Dan Gunter said...


Excellent thoughts and words, my friend. To simplify my take on it all:

Without good communication, humans could not exist; moreover, we would have no worthwhile reason to.

Trevor Gay said...

Great summary Dan :-)