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Accepting Criticism

by Ronald A. Warren Ph.D.

Many highly intelligent motivated professionals let their habitual emotional reactions get in the way of learning. Even some of us who say we relish constructive criticism can have strong emotional reactions when we receive negative feedback about our attitudes and behavior. It is easy to become defensive and shut out what others have to tell us.

Hard truths about our personality and behavior often generate emotions that block the impetus for change. We feel vulnerable when confronted by personal flaws or shortcomings and, in that state, some of us are unable to take a constructive approach to identifying the solutions that will make us more successful and satisfied. This may be especially true if the input or feedback you receive is surprising to you and you are taken aback.

Constructive Problem-Solving

People commonly exhibit three emotional reactions to feedback that interfere with their ability to learn from it: rather than accept responsibility for our behavior, we often ignore, deny, or blame someone or something else. These defensive reactions are so second nature that you may not be aware you are responding defensively to feedback. But it is important to understand that any of these three emotional reactions will prevent you from learning from feedback and using constructive problem-solving methods to improve.

Each of these emotional reactions is described below, and while you read through the descriptions, think whether these emotional reactions play a role in your psychological defenses. Do you try to ignore feedback about areas you need to develop? Do you find that you would rather deny than confront issues in your life? Have others ever said to you that you find someone or something to blame rather than reflect on your role in problems or difficult situations? What events need to occur for you to move to acceptance of the validity of feedback about your developmental needs? What are the psychological mechanisms that have historically interfered with your ability both to accept full responsibility for your counterproductive behavior and to create the foundation to constructively solve how to change your behavior to be more effective at work?

IGNORE

Ignorance might be bliss for some matters, but when you are looking at your personality and behavior, ignorance is not bliss. Without insight into your attitudes and behaviors, you are stuck with unconsciously repeating them -- whether they work well for you or not. Consider the differences between your ordinary work behaviors and how you might work on an important project or job assignment. When you are assigned important projects, you apply your intelligence, education, and experience and may consult with your peers to ensure the best possible outcome. You make a conscious effort to apply all your business smarts and technical knowledge to make sure the job is done right. Contrast this with your everyday approach to work. For most people, their work behaviors are more often the result of unconscious processes -- habits -- than of carefully crafted efforts. Illogical as it may be, people tend to ignore (or blame others for) past failures and problems and simply repeat what has not worked for them in the past.

People seldom apply their intelligence, education, experience, or a peer review process to their behavioral repertoire. It is the rare individual whose work behavior is the result of a methodical, thoughtful, critiqued effort. Because most people do not make conscious behavioral choices, they "default," or revert, to personality-driven habits, many of which are counterproductive.

Peter Ustinov said, "Once we are destined to live out our lives in the prison of our mind, our one duty is to furnish it well." This thought certainly can be applied to your behavior at work. Since you are destined to spend many, many hours in your place of work, it is in your best interests to perform well, to figure out what behaviors work and which do not and then apply that knowledge in your work life. That essentially is the task here: to understand your attitudes and behaviors, then choose to demonstrate those behaviors that help you to be more productive and satisfied at work and to learn to suppress those that are counterproductive. Easier said than done.

Unless a special effort is made to avoid it, you will lapse into old habits -- especially in familiar situations like your workplace. Your job, if you wish to increase your ability to succeed and feel satisfied, is to gain control of counterproductive habits through sheer force of reason and will, through a conscious, disciplined effort to change your behavior (for those of you who cannot handle the concept of change, because it just feels TOO BIG, try expressions like modify or moderate instead of the word change).

Changing your behavior requires that you think about how your personality traits affect the way you communicate, collaborate, set goals, deal with conflict, and feel about things. These issues are complex, but be reassured that even slight behavior modifications can mean the difference between success and failure. And remember: ignoring problems will ultimately be more painful than finding the solution to them.

DENY

Denial takes two forms. The first is to refute the validity of the feedback on your behavior and the second is to accept the validity of the feedback but refute that in your case the behavior is counterproductive. According to the first type of denial, a person might say, "I don't think I'm pushy," and, following the second type, someone might say, "I'm pushy, but that's the only way to get anything done around here."

The second form of denial is to agree that counterproductive traits are prominent in your personality makeup but deny that they have a negative impact on your performance. This is common among people who have attained some success as a result of their intelligence and technical skills. Their history of success makes it easier to discount the importance of their personality traits in their human-capital equation. For instance, very aggressive, pushy people may excuse their always-on-the-offense style by saying, "that's what got me where I am today," thinking they are commenting on their success, when in fact their intelligence and hard work is what brought some success while their hostility likely brought them high blood pressure and bad relationships.

BLAME

Blame is expressed in three familiar forms: self-blame, blame of others, and blame on outside influences in the world. Self-blame, guilt, is a very popular form. It does no good to feel guilty about your personality and behavior styles unless this awareness leads to change. Guilt alone has no benefit, so if you feel compelled to take a dip in the pool of self-pity, make it brief. While it is important and constructive to be aware of your flaws and shortcomings, becoming preoccupied with them serves no useful purpose and is in fact destructive.

Many people focus too much on their negative attributes and feel diminished by the presence of any counterproductive traits; what is most beneficial, however, is to maintain a balanced perspective on both strengths and weaknesses. Perfection is an unattainable ideal, but improvement is possible. Accept that you are imperfect and get on with it.

The second form of blame is the often used, frequently abused, blame of others. Perhaps because 75 percent of your coworkers have counterproductive personality styles, it is easy to see them as prime targets for blame. The fact that 75 percent of workers have personality problems that they carry with them to work means a stressful work environment, and under stressful conditions some people place blame on others. However, you must gently remind yourself that blame doesn't solve the problem, it only displaces it. Besides, I know of very few people who can actually have an impact on changing a coworker's personality or behavior. But, you can certainly change your own. When you master your own behavior, your relationships with others will improve and perhaps your more positive interactions will serve as an impetus for coworkers to make improvements as well.

The final form of blame is the familiar tendency to blame outside influences in the world for problems. Your work situation, company politics, family stress, the economy -- these are just a few outside influences that are common targets of blame. Often there are truly legitimate issues, problems, and irritations that the external world generates. But, your goal is not to change the external world -- an impossible task -- but to master your own attitudes and behaviors in the world in which you must operate effectively. One key to more successfully negotiating your way in a stressful world is for you to understand how you respond to stress and then to change or moderate your responses to better cope in a stressful world.

This article is excerpted from The Achievement Paradox, 2002, by Ronald A. Warren. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com

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About the Author

Ronald A. Warren, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist who specializes in employee assessment. Working in the United States and abroad, his clients have included United Parcel Service, Hyatt Hotels, Consumers Union, Walt Disney World Attractions, British Airways, and Maytag. Ron's firm, AchievementParadox.com provides consulting services to organizations in all areas of organizational measurement, including 360-degree assessments for corporate training programs. The ACT Self-Profile is available free at: http://www.psychtests.com/act. MAPII is available at: www.achievementparadox.com and at www.pantesting.com.



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