A young woman I've been mentoring called me the other day, distraught. "It happened again," said Ms. Fragile. "I just finished a big project and loads of people told me it went really well. But my boss called me and once again, starting going over all the ways I could have handled things better -- even though she never told me ahead of time to do anything different. She even asked me to critique myself! It's frustrating. How do I handle the constant criticism?"
There's a common belief that women seem to have a tougher time with criticism at the workplace. In my experience, we tend to take it more personally than men. We see criticism as an attack on ourselves, rather than our work. But maybe we're overly sensitive because we're criticized more than men, whether it's justified or not. A 2014 study by linguist Kiernan Snyder for Fortune magazine of performance reviews found that 88 percent of the reviews received by women contained critical feedback, compared to 59 percent of the men. And woman reviewers were just as likely to be critical of women as male reviewers.
It sucks that woman are criticized more than men, especially when all too often, we get shafted for the same behavior that is praised in a man (the abrasive, bitchy woman rather than the assertive, hard-charging man.) But I knew Ms. Fragile needed to get past any sort of gender politics. The important lesson for her is that a boss who gives you specific, performance-based feedback is a tremendous gift. Here's how my conversation went with my wounded friend.
"So, when you were growing up, did your parents say all your art projects was amazing?" I asked. "Did your teachers tell you that you were a hard worker? I bet you almost always got As, right?
"Uh, I got a couple of B's," said Fragile.
"Well, in the real world, where you get a paycheck in exchange for adding value to an organization, everything you do isn't perfect. Consider yourself very fortunate that you have a boss that provides both autonomy and performance-based feedback. She lets you make your own decisions and then afterwards asks you to talk about what could have been improved. It seems like your boss wants you to take what you learn and apply it to the next project. Does that seem right?"
"Yeah, I guess so," replied Fragile.
"The great thing about your boss is she seems to be focusing on your actual work, and she's even asking you to join in the appraisal. One of the strongest predictors for success I've seen is a person's willingness to seek out feedback and learn from it. Team members who came to me ten years ago begging for critiques are now superstars."
"Well, maybe," she said. "But it just makes me feel really crappy to think about all the mistakes I made."
"If you're beating yourself up over not doing a 'perfect' project, ask your boss if she would could step in and help you analyze things mid-way or periodically, instead of doing a post-mortem. She sounds like the kind of manager who understands the importance of providing subordinates with the freedom to make their own decisions, but there's a lot to be said for providing feedback mid-stream."
"I definitely don't want to be micro-managed," replied Fragile.
"You should read Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. It describes how Pixar uses "Braintrust" sessions to give its directors continuing feedback as they make their films. Even a superstar director makes a better movie when colleagues weigh in periodically throughout a film's development. But it's still up to the director to decide what to do with the notes they get, even from their superiors. Get a copy and then ask your boss to read it too."
"Did you forget I work for an accounting firm?" asked Fragile.
"It doesn't matter! It's just about the process. The important thing is to stop looking at feedback as an insult. Instead, seek out even more of it -- go to peers, clients, anybody, and ask them what's working well and what you could improve. If you happen to get feedback that you don't feel is warranted based on your gender, such as being called abrasive, ask the person to give you a specific, performance-based example. You'll get a thicker skin and I guarantee you'll become a more valuable employee."