The Benefits of Accepting Constructive Criticism

We probably all can recount important words of advice, critiques or feedback that we have received. The thoughts shared with us, about us, can become permanent, internalized guidelines that influence the choices that we make.

Accepting advice and critical feedback takes humility and openness. It’s hard to admit that we’re flawed or acknowledge when we’ve performed in a suboptimal manner. However, accepting advice and then acting on those suggestions is a key to self-improvement and personal progress.

What follows are three of the most memorable pieces of feedback that I’ve received, including details about their impact, ending with some final thoughts about the reasons to stay open to constructive criticism.

1. There’s no excuse for underperformance.

Having studied a social science as an undergraduate, I found business school very difficult. It was the first time that I was exposed to quantitative concepts in foundational courses such as accounting and finance.

Though I was very interested in the topic, I struggled in economics class as well. Many of the students had been economics majors at top universities. My rudimentary understanding of the concepts was no match to their deep-seated knowledge, and I ended up initially performing very poorly on tests.

I visited the professor during office hours and told her that I couldn’t compete with students who had an established foundation in the course materials. The professor, an Italian woman, very calmly and with a nonchalant flick of her hand, said to me, “So then you’ll have to work harder.” I don’t know whether it was the bluntness in translation or a cultural idiosyncrasy, but her curt seven word answer said it all. I stopped complaining about the inherent unfairness of the situation and worked harder.

In truth, I didn’t pass the class with flying colors. But with the work that I put in, I passed the course and I learned a lot in the process. I came away from this experience realizing that at times I will face unfair disadvantages in life and career. Nothing is gained from fixating on imbalance. You succeed by refocusing on the task and working hard to overcome the challenge.

2. Don’t just point out problems. Formulate solutions.

I am naturally analytical, and I easily identify problems and inefficiencies. During a feedback session at one of my previous jobs, my manager indicated that my ability to point out problems was not as helpful, or career-enhancing, as an ability to also suggest solutions. The person who is constantly pointing out problems is a “Debby Downer” that nobody wants to work with. However, the person who can identify areas of improvement and present well-organized recommendations is more likely to persuade others to contemplate and implement changes. This type of individual stands a better chance of making valuable improvements to the business.

Making this adjustment requires a slight change in attitude. If you, like me, are naturally inclined to see the glass as half empty or, as I like to spin it, see the glass as having the potential to be fuller, tweak your point of view and contemplate ways to fill the glass.

I recently put this approach into practice when I told my manager about a problem that required attention. After presenting my observations, the manager asked me, “What are some things that you think would improve the situation?” I was able to present what I thought were appropriate next steps and explained why I considered these ideal solutions. Doing so, I feel, helped convince stakeholders that a problem existed and encouraged timely action.

3. Always speak your mind.

I spent the summer between my two years of business school interning at a technology company. As the only female in a group of six interns, I struggled to connect with my peers and often felt that no one was listening to the ideas that I shared. As the summer progressed, I found myself growing tired and becoming more withdrawn.

At the end of the summer internship, we were asked to share feedback with one another. I received the following piece of feedback (paraphrased from memory) from one of the interns with whom I was close.

“Sometimes Stephanie seems to hold back with her thoughts, letting others dominate the conversation even though, in comparison, their points are not as strong as hers. Though Stephanie speaks less often than others, I want her to know that when she speaks, people listen. The ideas she shares are important, and people respect what she has to say. I hope that she will become even more vocal in sharing her thoughts moving forward.”

What was important to me in the feedback was the validation that people were listening. Distracted by the politics of my situation, I was overlooking the impact that I could have on others and the projects on which we worked. This impact and how others perceived me was later confirmed when it was revealed that my secret nickname amongst the other interns was “small but deadly.” From this feedback, I learned that I shouldn’t be scared or cave to frustration when participating in dialogue. My ideas matter, and I should be confident in communicating them.

Being open to constructive criticism is a great opportunity to find ways to improve your performance. You may be unaware of ineffective habits or how others perceive you. Having the opportunity to hear honest feedback allows you to secure valuable insights and make beneficial adjustments.

I also think that delivering honest and heartfelt feedback to someone, typically someone that you care about, is a really difficult endeavor. As such, receiving honest feedback from another person is like receiving a gift—something that they likely labored to craft and that they have delivered with love. Knowing how hard it is for the other person to give you constructive criticism, you should be more open to receiving it and be appreciative of the effort.

Now it’s your turn: What is the most important or memorable piece of professional feedback that you have received, and how has it changed how you behave and the choices you make?