Office Criticism: Constructive or Just Insulting?

I just got a new hybrid car. Recently, I was driving down the street and the guy in the next car appeared to be waving his fist at me. I searched my brain for something that I'd done to trigger his road rage. I couldn't think of anything. So I just kept driving.

Two blocks later we were stopped at a light. The same guy got out of his car and started waving his hands at me and screaming. It was a short light, so he got right back in his car and sped off. I just wrote him off as a crackpot.

I muttered to myself, "What a jerk." Then I drove another half block and someone going in the opposite direction blinked his lights at me. The light finally turned on inside my head -- I was driving down the highway with my lights off. See, unlike my old car, the hybrid is totally computerized and the car's dashboard is always lit up. So I had to remind myself each time I drove at night that I needed to turn the lights on despite the dashboard being totally lit up.

OK, so I'm not the brightest driver. But what does this have to do with the weekly workplace blog? After finally turning my lights on, I started thinking. My experience with those fellow drivers was very similar to the the problems we sometimes have getting feedback at work. Often it's hard to tell the difference between someone trying to hassle you and someone trying to offer constructive criticism. Because at first they can look mighty similar.

Whenever we receive criticism, we naturally go through a range of emotions. Think about the last time someone offered criticism of you at work. Did you encourage the person to offer it? Did you really listen to what the person had to say? Did you give your boss or co-worker the benefit of the doubt rather than going into attack mode or discounting what the person had to say? Or did you just blow it off? Sometimes it's hard to know what to do.

And the more powerful the criticism, the more likely we are to want to blow it off. I've learned that if I'm getting really mad, uptight or defensive as someone is offering me criticism, there is a mighty good chance that the person is on to something. And therefore, it is of paramount importance for me to really listen to what the person has to say and to see the criticism as a gift. Yes, a gift.

Because the person could be giving me the chance to do a better job. And what better gift can you give someone at work?

But let's not get completely carried away here. Some criticism is intended to be just plain destructive, to cause pain and embarrassment. The problem is that it's often difficult to understand the motives behind it. So you've got to give the person a shot and weigh the words carefully instead of immediately jumping to a conclusion.

Feedback can be useful, and it's best to accept it with an open mind and then think it through before reacting or just dismissing it. Just think of it as that light that can lead you out of your own personal darkness.


"If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying." -- Bob Dylan


From "What Color Is Your Parachute?" by Richard Bolles (10 Speed, 2006):

"He or she who gets hired is not necessarily the one who can do the job best but the one who knows the most about how to get hired. Richard Lathrop, in his classic, 'Who's Hiring Who.' Oh, how true! Depressing, but true! If you're out of work, then mastering the job hunt is even more important than mastering your job. At least when times are tough. Or when the single largest employer in your town has just closed its gates after 45 years. Or when your job has been outsourced to some oversees place."

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Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, an internationally syndicated columnist, popular speaker, and a recent addition to the community of bloggers. He welcomes your comments at

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.