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Mar 19, 201401:57 PMOpen for Business

with Jody Glynn Patrick

Sticks and stones: Dealing with workplace criticism

(page 1 of 2)

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill

Usually you are quite open to feedback and, in fact, you even welcome negative comments — if you believe they have merit or could help you improve, or if they are offered by a friend who cares about you. So after Randy emails saying he’d like to discuss your team project suggestions with you (“face to face”) before adding them to the group report, is your first reaction one of appreciation, apprehension, or annoyance?

The answer likely depends more on how you feel about Randy than on your core personality traits or how you feel about your work.

If Randy has ever displayed passive-aggressive or outright rude behavior toward you, you may be biologically inclined to tune him out or, worse, to defend your position at the expense of your own betterment. This is because you have “mirror neurons” in your brain.

These neurons were first discovered by neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, M.D., and his colleagues at the University of Parma. They noticed, while experimenting with macaque monkeys, that certain groups of neurons in the monkeys’ brains fired when a monkey performed an action (grabbing an apple) and also when the monkey watched another monkey grab an apple. The same neurons fired even when the monkey only heard another monkey doing the same thing in another room.

What does that science have to do with you and Randy? Later experimentation confirmed that the same holds true for human neurological reactions. This evolutionary “empathy” skill may be vital to our very survival, allowing us to learn from other human beings’ successes, mistakes, and advice. However, further research suggests that our hardwired empathy loop is overridden when we don’t particularly care for the person modeling the behavior — or telling us what to do or not to do.

Further experimental research shows that if we do not like someone, we do not flinch when they get hit in a boxing ring. We override our natural neural reaction to their misery. Nor does a person’s success bring a reactionary smile or racing heart if we don’t believe they deserve it. Subconsciously, we’ve decided “they are not like me” and therefore, “I won’t/can’t learn from them”… and so we mentally “talk-to-the-hand” dismiss them.

Let’s agree that Randy has unfairly undermined you in the past. You can still stay true to your core value of hearing and learning from negative as well as positive feedback. Here’s how:

CALM YOURSELF to listen in order to understand rather than to refute. Regardless of how excited he might become while expressing his views (or how enthusiastically he knocks your work), consciously model your own controlled approach to handling conflict in a more mature, healthy manner.

CHOOSE to regard him as a potential mentor, despite past history. Randy is, in fact, a fellow human being with many of the same fears and needs you have. Try to hop over to his side of the fence and understand 1) what he says and 2) why he says it. Then search for, and focus on, some small seed of truth or fairness in the feedback. Another bonus — you can also better defend your work in his eyes, if he’s truly unfair, by better understanding or acknowledging his underlying filter.


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