Fear of criticism
Maybe our fear of criticism goes back to our school days. Spending hours writing essays only to have them marked and returned with lots of red lines and teacher’s comments.
I’ve also been subjected to a wide variety of appraisals and work reviews in the different organisations I have worked for. Most of them provided encouraging, constructive criticism and feedback, especially in my early years in the Civil Service. And yet I still used to dread the annual Performance Appraisal Reviews and the fear of criticism. I imagine we are all the same. We think – hope! – we are doing a good job, but when there’s a review on the horizon we start to worry about getting negative feedback.
I was very lucky to be assigned to experienced managers who understood the difference between constructive and destructive criticism and how it can affect a person’s self-esteem. Their feedback encouraged my personal development and gave me the confidence to take on new challenges throughout my career and in my personal life.
However, there is one incident which stands out in my mind more than any other because of the way it made me feel. Little did I realise that how I felt at that moment was going to influence how I treated people I worked with in the future.
In my first contract as a freelance Test Consultant I was working for a very large corporate company. The job meant I was working away from home, with people I didn’t know and learning a new complex system. Everything was different, I was way out of my comfort zone but wanted to make a good impression because this was the career I loved.
What I didn’t bank on was being assigned to a manager who let her personal life interfere with her professional life, to the extent that on her bad days, she publicly criticised and humiliated people. Less than a week into my new role, I was verbally attacked in a room full of people – because I had saved a file in the wrong place. She should have quietly point out the correct folder structure, but instead she shouted, finger-pointed and called me an ‘over-paid simpleton’.
I sat there open-mouthed and fighting back the tears. People were staring at me. I felt embarrassed and physically sick. I couldn’t even manage an easy escape because the door was the other side of the room. Instead I bit my lip, walked over to her desk, and I asked her quietly and apologetically if she could show me where the file should be. After correcting my mistake I walked down to the Ladies loo on the floor below and cried my eyes out. I had never felt so humiliated in all my life and convinced myself I was going to get sacked. I left work that day ready to pack my bags and even started looking for a new contract!
The next day she acted as if nothing had happened. No apology was ever forthcoming but it occurred so frequently, with different people, that eventually she was reported and moved to another area. Under a new, encouraging, more professional manager I became a team leader and stayed with that company for two years. I learnt new skills and gained knowledge and experience using new testing tools, but the most important thing I learnt was how to give feedback.
If you have single-handedly set up your own business, set up Social Media accounts, manage the financial affairs and created your own website, hats off to you. You deserve a massive pat on the back. It doesn’t matter what line of business you are in (unless you are a web designer!) or how well you are doing. You have successfully done something a lot of people can’t or won’t do for various reasons, and one of those reasons is fear of criticism.
When you’re starting out, you know a business website is an essential marketing tool, but a good web designer costs money – even bad web designers cost money! And although it’s a recognisable investment, if you can’t afford it, your only option is to go it alone.
There are lots of sites, like Wix and WordPress, which can help you create a simple, straight-forward website. Don’t let them fool you into thinking it’s an easy task. You still have to think about what pages you need, getting the right template, writing the content, uploading images, etc. Maybe that doesn’t sound too difficult, but if your website is going to stand out from your competitors then it needs to be aesthetically pleasing and easy to use.
So, now we’ve added a couple of plug-ins and widgets to improve the website ‘look and feel’ and it’s ready for publishing. Who are the first people we ask for feedback? Our friends and family of course. Because of our fear of criticism we can rely on them to be positive – and even if they are really honest, we know it will be in a nice, positive way. But does that mean we are already worrying too much about what other people think and, more importantly, what our customers think?
What is Criticism?
Negative criticism from an unqualified, uninformed source is of so little value that it’s meaningless. It makes zero sense to pay it any of your valuable attention.
As a small business owner we have to learn to deal with these fears, because as soon as your business is online it’s visible and open to criticism. So to survive it’s essential that you stop negative criticism from affecting you.
To do this try to understand more about the critic than the criticism. If they are an expert in their field then, even if their comment is negative, it might be something worth taking onboard. The key difference between criticism and feedback is our perception of it.
Criticism is often taken to mean that we are being judged by another person in a condescending manner. So when people are criticised by others it can be a fairly unpleasant experience for the receiver.
Destructive criticism doesn’t help anyone. In fact it can lower a person’s self-esteem and make them feel like a failure. Constructive criticism, on the other hand can help to develop the abilities of that person, and create a positive change.
What is Feedback?
Feedback is generally understood to be information that can improve the performance or development of a product or a person. For example, a company has released a new product on the market and wants to evaluate the public’s response. There are different ways to go about this. They might hold a small event where samples of the product are given to members of the public and they have to provide feedback. The company can then understand how well the product has been received and act on this feedback.
For people, a manager might give feedback in a personal appraisal, or to a group of employees when they complete a new project. A lot of companies hold one-off, end of project ‘Lessons Learned’ sessions. Key stakeholders are asked to provide feedback for the project as a whole – what went well or not so well and what can be improved.
Lessons learned is all about understanding what you all did right and what you all could have done better. It’s not about finger pointing. It’s about learning. And this is why, when I perform my business website reviews, my feedback report isn’t all about what is wrong with the website. It’s about pointing out what works really well and what can be improved.
I always ask for feedback and, from what I’ve received, the majority of my clients generally agree with my comments. Issues are fixed, suggestions for re-wording are applied, website layout and functionality is improved. A lot of the changes are quick, easy, inexpensive and effective.
Very occasionally they don’t want to make any changes, which is fine. I’m not going to force my opinions on anybody. However I will point out that if one of the issues is that your website is not legally compliant, then that is not just my opinion. It’s the law!
One of the reasons behind this post is a conversation I had recently with a new client. She admits she’s not technically minded but has still managed to build her own website. However, when she saw that someone on Facebook had left a rather derogatory comment, she was understandably upset and demoralised. Personally, having just started my review of the site, she has done a bloody good job and we’ll work together to make it even better!
If you’ve never received bad feedback maybe you don’t have a fear of criticism, and you’re incredibly lucky. Your parents and teachers must have been a lot nicer than mine. But next time you leave a review or a comment, if you know it’s a small business, try and be a bit more considerate. Your criticisms can be hurtful and demoralising. I appreciate it’s not always easy, especially if you’ve had bad customer service, but imagine how you would feel if you were being publicly humiliated.
I know how I felt and it’s not something I would even wish on my worst enemy.
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