THE BLOG
10/07/2014 03:13 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

How To Deal With Criticism At Work, Even When It Feels Personal

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By Caitlin Moscatello, Glamour

According to a new study for Fortune.com, women are more likely than men to be criticized at work, and the majority of the feedback is focused on personality traits rather than workplace performance. Equally frustrating? The study found that both male and female managers are more likely to give men suggestions on how to improve, while women are told to stop being so abrasive or overbearing but not given constructive feedback on how to develop. Out of the 248 reviews included in the study, 71 percent of women received negative comments from their employers, compared with just 2 percent of men. And while 81 percent of men received constructive feedback, only 23 percent of women could say the same. In short, women are criticized more, and, yes, it can feel personal.

And how could it not? Just compare these two quotes included on reviews, the first for a male employee, the second for a female employee:

"Hone your strategies for guiding your team and developing their skills. It is important to set proper guidance around priorities and to help as needed in designs and product decisions."

"You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don't meant to, but you need to pay attention to your tone."

The difference is pretty jarring. But, as Tara Mohr, author of the forthcoming book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message writes in The New York Times, there's a reason that those comments can feel so...prickly. She argues that, from childhood, "women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable." And while pop culture plays a role in this perception that we, as women, need approval from others, so do deeply ingrained fears of being left unprotected. "For centuries, women couldn't protect their own safety through physical, legal, or financial means..." writes Mohr. "Being likable, or at least acceptable to stronger, more powerful others, was one of our primary available survival strategies. For many women around the world, this is still the reality, but all women inherit the psychological legacy of that history. Disapproval, criticism, and the withdrawal of others' approval can feel so petrifying for us at times--life-threatening even--because for millenniums, it was."

While it's unrealistic to simply grow a thicker skin overnight, there could be some benefit to accepting criticism instead of internalizing it (and obsessing over it, and, let's be honest, who hasn't done that?). Mohr states that "substantive work" should come with both criticism and praise and that "innovative thinking and controversial decisions garner supporters and critics, especially for women. We need to retrain our minds to expect and accept this." A few of Mohr's suggestions on putting this into practice:

  • Imagine how a woman you admire would handle the criticism you received, and use that to help model your own response.
  • Read online reviews of your favorite authors for a little perspective. (See? Everyone is subjected to criticism.)
  • Think of any feedback, positive or negative, as information that you can use to your advantage--not a personal jab. What did your boss or client like? What didn't she like? By focusing on the comments themselves and not how they reflect on you, you'll be able to sharpen your presentation or performance for next time and be even more of a rock star at work.

Another step I'd like to see: Training for managers on how to give feedback, clearly and fairly, for all employees. It hardly seems right that female workers bear the whole burden of change in this case, don't you think?

Have you been criticized at work in a way that felt personal? How did you deal? Share in the comments!

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