Criticism and Perception

The very first performance review I received was based on a typical 1 to 5 scale with 5 being “exceed expectations”.  I was working in a hospital and the system was pretty straight forward, you worked hard and mastered your tasks and you were almost always going to get a 4.  The general perception was if you received anything less than a 4 you probably weren’t very good.  Well, I aimed for a 5, so I learned everything there was to learn about my job, suggested some improvements and if I was on duty my department always got high marks.  So, I was not surprised that I received 4 and 5’s in each category.   It pretty much went the same way for several years.  That is until my first management role, where I reported to the CEO.  She and I got along great.  My strength was people and hers was finance and negotiations, she was former CFO.  Before my review we really never sat down to discuss expectations, I just did what I had to do to support her, the company and the other senior leaders.  During our first review she was very positive about my overall performance but when she got to the finance/accounting area she gave me a 3.  She told me I was doing great with monitoring our finances and maintaining a decent size budget, but I needed to strengthen my overall knowledge of the financial accounting side of the business.  She further explained that this would really provide me with a stronger foundation in my future career opportunities.  To me, at that time, like many employees, considered a 3 to be average (but that’s a different subject) at best and it really surprised me.  I became defensive and probably stopped listening at that point trying to figure out why she gave me a 3.    My mind quickly went to the fact that she was a financial nerd and expected perfection. 

But as I think back to that review, she really taught me a great lesson.  She cared enough to step out of the norm and tell me where I needed to improve, and I did.  Had she not been willing to tell me the truth, I would have never focused in the finance and accounting area since it is not exactly the enjoyable part of my job.  But I had to be knowledgeable in all areas of business if I was going to continue to grow and expand in my career.

Any criticism can be hard to accept. But surprise feedback — criticism that seems to come without warning is the hardest. We’re far more likely to be defensive.   About the only thing I would have suggested to her today would be to have discussed her expectations with me before that meeting and provide me with information about those weak areas so when that review time came, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The other strong lesson I learned is to prepare your employees on your methodology as it relates performance reviews.  If you don’t give high marks, unless someone walks on water, tell them ahead of time how you will be rating them.  Everyone seems to take criticism better, when it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

So as you listen to criticism and your adrenaline starts to flow, pause, take a deep breath, and:

Look beyond your feelings. Look beyond their delivery. Feedback is hard to give, and the person offering criticism may not be skilled at doing it well. Even if the feedback is delivered poorly, it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and insightful. Not everything will be communicated in “I” statements, focused on behaviors, and shared with compassion. Avoid confusing the package with the message.

Don’t agree or disagree. Just collect the data. If you let go of the need to respond, you’ll reduce your defensiveness and give yourself space to really listen. Criticism is useful information about how someone else perceives you. Make sure you fully get it.

Later, with some distance, decide what you want to do. Data rarely forces action, it merely informs it. Recognizing that the decision, and power, to change is up to you will help you stay open.