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People’s sense of self is paramount to how they navigate the world. When we feel good about ourselves, the personal and professional things in our lives – tend to flow better. But when we feel vulnerable or insecure, these things can suffer.

Therefore, when we’re criticized, particularly in a professional setting, our knee-jerk reaction is to get defensive. We may tend to be quick to blame others or even circumstances so that we don’t have to be honest about how we may have contributed to a poor outcome.  We may even go to the extreme of rewriting history in our minds and remembering events differently to escape blame.

But why do we resort to such drastic measures?

In a book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson outline why we justify our foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. There’s a lot of nuances as to why we fight so hard to avoid criticism, but at the end of the day, it’s all about preserving our sense of ego.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this response makes sense. When we receive criticism, we feel attacked. When we feel attacked, we go into defense mode. Choosing to avoid blame rather than accept it is only natural and in the moment, it feels like the safest and easiest method of self-protection. But, responding to criticism with defense or denial can make situations much worse. Responding defensively not only conditions us to keep repeating this response pattern but also limits our ability to learn from our mistakes and grow professionally.

The next time you are on the receiving end of criticism in the workplace, consider these alternative responses. They will help you handle the criticism more gracefully and come out on the other side of it with positive takeaways, no matter how negative the message.

  • Resist the urge to respond defensively. It’s better not to respond at all than to get defensive. That doesn’t mean giving someone the silent treatment, but it may mean taking some time to cool down before responding. There’s nothing wrong with politely removing yourself from a situation rather than saying something you regret in the heat of the moment.


  • Accept Responsibility. One of the most common responses to criticism is to point the finger at someone else. It’s much easier to find a scapegoat than to take a look at oneself. But even when others may share responsibility for an unwanted outcome, it is essential to make an honest evaluation of what role we may have played or how we might avoid such outcomes in the future. Self-reflection is critical to professional and personal progression and will help you avoid making mistakes down the line.


  • Express gratitude. If you give any immediate reply to the messenger of your criticism, it should be “thank you”. Let them know that you appreciate the feedback and will work to do better. This is not an easy thing to do of course – particularly if receiving criticism face to face – but it will get easier the more you practice and will go a long way in maintaining your professional reputation.


  • Get some perspective. After expressing recognition of the criticism, your next reaction should be to truly understand it. Try to rephrase the feedback and repeat it back to the person to make sure you’re accurately perceiving what they’re saying. If they feel validated and understood by you, they are more likely to treat you with patience and understanding in return. And if you understand the criticism, you will have a better idea of how to avoid it in the future.


  • Avoid over-explanation. When we’ve done something wrong – especially if it was unintentional – we tend to resort to justification. Trying to explain away your behaviors may make you feel better, but to others, it will look like you’re trying to avoid responsibility. It’s likely that the person expressing the criticism will give you a chance to share your perspective, so wait until that point before jumping into explanation mode.


  • Ask for feedback. If you are not clear on what you need to do to address the criticism and make it better, then the next step should be to seek counseling from the person giving you the criticism. Ask them for clarity about what their expectations are and how you can best meet them. This approach will both help you learn and show the person who criticized you that you take their feedback seriously.


Receiving criticism is never easy, but these six steps should help you make the most of a difficult experience.

If you’re looking for even more insights on navigating issues in the workplace, check out all blog posts for candidates here.