Opinion: Learning to love criticismPOSTED: 02/17/15 12:19 AM
A NEW study by the linguist and tech entrepreneur Kieran Snyder, done for Fortune.com, found two differences between workplace performance reviewsgiven to men and women. Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.
The study speaks to the impossible tightrope women must walk to do their jobs competently and to make tough decisions while simultaneously coming across as nice to everyone, all the time. But the findings also point to something else: If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized — with comments not just about her work but also about herself. She must develop a way of experiencing criticism that allows her to persevere in the face of it.
And yet, many women don’t have that tool kit. In my coaching practice and training courses for women, I often encounter women who don’t voice their ideas or pursue their most important work because of dependence on praise or fears of criticism.
Many women are aware of this problem. “I know I need a thicker skin, but I have no idea how to get it,” one woman, a consultant to small businesses, said to me.
Criticism stings for all of us, but women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable. By the time a girl reaches adolescence, she’ll most likely have watched hundreds of films, television shows and advertisements in which a woman’s destiny is determined not by her own choices but by how she is perceived by others. In those hundreds of stories, we get the message: What other people think and say about us matters, a lot.
There’s another, deeper factor that informs women’s relationship to criticism and praise. For centuries, women couldn’t protect their own safety through physical, legal or financial means. We couldn’t rely on the law if our safety was threatened. We couldn’t use our own money to escape or safeguard ourselves and our children, because we could not own property. 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.
Add to this history what we see in our time: Powerful women tend to receive over reactive, shaming and inappropriately personal criticism. Kirsten E. Gillibrand’s colleagues in the Senate making comments about her weight. Christiane Amanpour being blasted for expressing even a hint of anger about the deaths of children in Syria. Hillary Rodham Clinton for not looking well rested enough while circling the globe. In our Internet age, this criticism often also becomes vulgar, sexualized and angry.
In the context of these influences, what allows women to become free of concerns about the reactions they or their work will provoke? I’ve found that the fundamental shift for women happens when we internalize the fact that all substantive work brings both praise and criticism. Many women carry the unconscious belief that good work will be met mostly — if not exclusively — with praise. Yet in our careers, the terrain is very different: Distinctive work, innovative thinking and controversial decisions garner supporters and critics, especially for women. We need to retrain our minds to expect and accept this.
There are a number of effective ways to do this. A woman can identify another woman whose response to criticism she admires. In challenging situations, she can imagine how the admired woman might respond, and thereby see some new possible responses for herself. It can be helpful to read the most negative and positive reviews of favorite female authors, to remind ourselves of the divergent reactions that powerful work inspires.
Women can also benefit from interpreting feedback as providing information about the preferences and point of view of the person giving the feedback, rather than information about themselves. In other words, a negative reaction from five investors doesn’t tell a woman anything about the quality of her business idea or her aptitude for entrepreneurship; it just tells her something about what those investors are looking for.
And if those five investors love her pitch? That also doesn’t tell her about her merit as an entrepreneur; it tells her about what they are looking for in an investment. In other words, feedback is useful because it provides insight about the people we want to reach, influence and engage. With that reframing, women can filter which feedback they need to incorporate to achieve their aims, without the taxing emotional highs and lows.
When a woman is being held back by fear of a particular criticism or paralyzed by a harsh criticism received in the past, she can also turn inward and ask herself, “Does that criticism in some way mirror what I believe about myself? When and why did that negative self-concept arise? Does it reflect the truth?” If a woman feels petrified of being told she’s not smart enough, for example, she may hold that doubt about herself. If she feels horribly wounded by criticism about her appearance, she most likely carries feelings of shame about her body. As she sees the roots of her beliefs and replaces them with a more accurate view of herself, she can free herself from the personal impact of the criticism.
Women today inhabit a transitional historical moment. We have tremendous new freedoms and new opportunities, but the legacy of a very different past is around us and inside us. Learning to respond to praise and criticism — without getting hooked by it — is for most of us, a necessary rite of passage.