Blub, you lose!
May 23, 2011 2:24 PM   Subscribe

What has helped you take criticism better, and avoid losing your nerve when you feel that your work is being evaluated?

I often also get the yips when I feel I am being watched at work, get told to improve something, or even sense (not always correctly) that my Boss is not happy. For example, I recently had a cry at work because I overheard my boss negatively evaluating me. What he had to say was true, but said very harshly cause I guess I wasn't in the room. Very embarrassing.

It seems like the criticism I get, (or simply feel without being told), makes me hyper-focus on the problem and second-guess myself. And then I start trying to do things that I think the Boss would like, rather than my own intuition. This just makes things worse. Disaster. My job is one where I have to be on the ball all the time. There is simply no time to excuse myself to have a blub in the toilet. If I do, it severely effects my co-workers, and is a safety issue.

I guess what I want is a way to improve the situation at work, and better deal with criticism without blubbing, or losing my nerve when watched. What has helped take criticism better, and avoid losing your nerve when you feel that your work is being evaluated?

Also, I know it's partly an anxiety issue, and I am on meds for that, and am looking into therapy. Thanks
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Work on separating the criticism of you and the criticism of the work. Some times the two are intertwined, and other times your work is done and the comments are about The Product. If someone is peering over your shoulder, are they looking at you, or are they looking at The Product? If it's the latter, don't let the discussion be about you, focus on what is in front of you.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:35 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

These are things that I’ve done in the past, although I’ve always evaluated what happened (good/bad) so I tended to ignore the boss opinion, but work with me:

• Remind yourself that no one is perfect and you did try your best and are striving to improve, so don’t take it to heart.

• Remind yourself that your boss or team are pointing out these things before it gets to another company that you create things for or a customer, so the boss is trying to make things better for the collective team.

• Step away and calm down, but afterwards (after you have evaluated the problem and thought how to work with it/improve), come up with solutions. So when I had to work at a company, I noticed the same consistent errors I made over and over created my own personal checklist and reviewed those things…then I gave it to the next person.

• Ask for help if you need it. I’ve also worked at places where they never gave you the training and/or another person needs to or should be involved for best practices. So if you write something, for example, an editor and or factchecker should also (that is an example, but I’m sure you can think of others) – but if it is a matter of double checking work, partner up with someone.

Remember, if you can solve what your boss is criticizing, you and your boss deserve a pat on the back. Most places do not review what goes wrong (during or after it is completed),nor take steps to change or improve it. I think your boss would be more likely to notice improvements and/or how things are fixed.

I would try to work with a psychologist/therapist to desensitize yourself to this (you will get there), but remind yourself over and over again…everyone makes mistakes, but what will do with that info to change or improve?

Also, perhaps your boss needs to be learning, too and could be new to this. Subtly point out to your boss (in email if you feel more comfortable): “Hey, I agree, I need to work on writing anonymous…but can you tell me in a different way…rather than telling me “you are stupid anonymous,” tell me that you prefer that I work on (whatever).
posted by Wolfster at 3:07 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being a musician toughened my skin because nothing is ever performed perfectly - and even when it is, that just opens up a world of disagreement over musical interpretation. In short: everyone is always in disagreement about how something was performed and therefore, musicians have to be open to hearing very difficult opinions and observations about their own performances. When I performed Handel's "Messiah" last winter with the Houston Symphony, the official review in the Houston Chronicle said that, on occasion the group was not always together and getting back together "was like a pair of Slinkys moving side by side." Ouch. That's not the desired musical effect, I assure you.

I grew up hearing criticism of my music, and some of it was easier to hear than others. My mother once told me that it sounded like I was fighting with the piano... and losing. And I wont say it doesn't sting to hear something like that. But eventually, you have to realize that the most important part of criticism is how you hear it.

But while hearing criticism openly is the most important part, it is only half the battle. You need to position yourself as someone who receives criticism graciously and acceptingly. Do you seek feedback? Do you have a self-evaluation model that you use to gauge your own successes and failures? Do you take notes when someone is providing a critique, and do you ask them to clarify if/when a critique is unclear? Do you ask for help when you need it? Can you articulate your preferred "packaging" for criticism?

The experience you're describing is actually several steps beyond the positive constructive criticism stop on this runaway train to self-doubt and anxiety. I've had two bosses who were not good at providing criticism. And I had no control over that. When I said, "I thrive on regular criticism and constructive feedback" I meant it. Instead, those supervisors took a "wait and see" approach to determine if I would self-correct the practices they disliked. I'm sure you're shocked to learn that I didn't. When they praised my work and told me how happy they were to have me on board, I took them at their word. And that was a huge mistake on my part. I should never have relied on nebulous praise as an indicator of how well I was performing my job. I should have asked for interim suggestions for improvement and demanded specific action items. After about six months of consistent and unremarked-upon mistakes (that I didn't realize I was making), both supervisors got upset and disappointed and lost confidence in my ability to do the work. That, combined with the new knowledge that my supervisors couldn't articulate their concerns until after they were furious about them, made me incredibly anxious.

Those problems were not primarily mine. You can do all the right things, and be open to criticism and even willing to accept harsh opinions, and be the most approachable person in the world: and still you cannot control whether someone else behaves in a similarly appropriate way. Here, it sounds like your boss made a pretty grave error in judgment about how he criticized your work. If you want to move forward, accept that you both have communication skills to work on at the very outset, before you ever touch the issue of your work skills.

As a bonus: Sloane Crosley wrote a funny, tragic little essay on a horrible work experience entitled "The Ursula Cookie." If you don't go out and buy the book to read it, at least sit down in a bookstore and read that essay. Everyone who is having a rough time at work should.
posted by jph at 3:37 PM on May 23, 2011 [17 favorites]

When I first started as a writer, one of the things I learned was that the words on the paper were just that -- words. They were the product of my work, but they were not literally parts of me. Getting that distance between "you" and the work product, whatever it is, is essential for you to be able to criticize the work and make it better.

Let's say you were selling something. Did the sale get made? If not, why not? Remember, we're not criticizing you, we're looking at the work product -- the actions, the words, the materials. Those things can be changed, pushed, pulled, folded, adjusted, etc.

You are not your work.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:16 PM on May 23, 2011

Honestly, the best thing I ever did to improve my outlook on feedback was to leave a job where my boss and coworkers were in the habit of saying mean things about me behind my back. Healthy workplaces don't have bosses saying harsh things about their employees to third parties in the workplace, they have direct and honest feedback given freely and openly. I realize that you may not be able to change jobs, at least not right away, but being in a workplace where you know that people complain about one another in secret is toxic to your psyche. It made me incredibly paranoid about my performance, and I constantly felt as though I was being criticized even when I wasn't. Once I got out of that job and into a place where people spoke directly to one another in a kind manner, I was much better able to take constructive criticism in the spirit in which it was offered.
posted by decathecting at 4:28 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Re-frame criticism as it being about improving your work, learning, and contributing something even better. No one person can know everything.

Having said that - I have worked in places where there was a steady flow of negative criticism about my work and myself and nothing else and all it does is wear you down.

I have also worked in places where people are nice to you to your face and say horrendous things about you when you're 'not around'.

Both of those are big trust violations and make it very difficult for even the toughest of souls to stay sane.

Criticism should be about making something better - not destroying something or someone.
posted by mleigh at 4:52 PM on May 23, 2011

What helped?

Working in open source software, where a bug report is a contribution -- reporting relevant defects well is a welcomed skill.

From Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture" - the insight that it's when people notice a problem and don't criticize that you should be unhappy, because that might mean they've given up on you.

Having other fairly objective measures tell me that I'm doing all right. Talking to colleagues and mentors to get another perspective.
posted by brainwane at 5:21 AM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

There are two parts to your reaction:
1. Survival - you want to keep your job
2. Ego - losing face, respect, personal self-worth

Convince yourself you won't lose your job:
- get criticized a lot (and you'll get used to it)
- know your boss's tolerance / limits
- tell yourself your work is far better than it is bad

Then it gets easier - convince your ego that criticism is a good thing:
- criticism is how you get better
- criticism is an opportunity for your boss (and others) to contribute to you. You could even compliment them on their excellent observation, etc.

I'm a huge Gordon Ramsay fan. He has a documentary called "Boiling Point" in which he's attempting to get his third Michelin star for his flagship restaurant. At one point he's talking to the camera and he says (paraphrasing here) the complimentary feedback cards are nice, but he throws those away; it's the criticizing feedback that he focuses on because that's how he improves.

The guy *ignores* compliments and *only* listens to criticism. That's a pretty powerful frame of mind.
posted by blahtsk at 3:16 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

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