Handling Criticism in Your First Job

Knowing how to handle criticism positively is a key part of your growth as you embark on your graduate career. Here are some ways to handle criticism without losing your cool!
Anne Grace Savitha
Writer, gradsingapore

No one expects you to get everything right in your first job, and mistakes will definitely happen when you’re just getting started. Yet receiving criticism or feedback from your co-workers or managers - even when it is justified - is rarely an easy experience.

However, as difficult as it may seem, learning how to respond to criticism appropriately and positively is a key part of your growth journey as a fresh graduate finding your footing in the world of work. Here are some tips on how you can turn criticism into positive learning outcomes instead.  

1. Listen and stay calm

Criticism is never easy to receive, and you may often find yourself stunned or unsure how to react when on the receiving end. However, the best way to respond initially is to keep a cool head and consciously compel yourself to just listen.

Resist the urge to interject because it is important that you hear the entire context of the feedback your co-workers or managers have to share. You’ll want to hear their thoughts in all their entirety before jumping prematurely to any conclusions.

Keeping calm and listening also gives you time to process what you’re hearing and sort through your thoughts properly before responding. You don’t want to let your emotions get the better of you, and you most certainly don’t want to flare up in front of someone higher-ranked than you are!

2. Identify where to improve

Once you’ve heard all that feedback, take the time to identify areas where you could improve or what mistakes you might have inadvertently made that need to be addressed. 

For example, a manager might have told you that you were too antagonistic when speaking to a client during a presentation. Perhaps you were simply nervous but instead came across as snippy or aloof when speaking. Or perhaps you were frustrated because the client was asking unreasonable questions or making you repeat yourself. Whatever your reasons or intentions may have been, it is always worth pausing to think about what you might do better the next time you find yourself in a similar situation. 

Don’t make the mistake of presuming that because something wasn’t your fault, whatever criticism you’re receiving is unwarranted, or that there’s nothing you need to improve on. Remember that such feedback usually comes from the standpoint of someone with more experience, so chances are there’s definitely something there that you need to take note of.

Approach such feedback with an open mind at all times. No matter how good a job you think you may have done, or no matter how legit or unwarranted you may think the feedback is, there is definitely always room for improvement somewhere.  

3. Respond and clarify respectfully

How you reply to criticism is just as important as how you receive it. Your instinctive reaction may be to defend yourself or to pin the blame on someone or something else. Resist the urge to do that. Going on the defensive only escalates the situation, and sends your co-workers the message that you are either not receptive to feedback or unwilling to learn.

Clarify your doubts or standpoint respectfully with the party giving you the feedback. It is entirely possible that the other party may not be aware of the full context of your situation either. So laying out your standpoint (though you should take care not shift fault somewhere else when doing so) may actually help the other party provide you with more relevant feedback once they have a better understanding of your circumstances.

If the other party is more experienced, do ask questions about how they might suggest you handle things better next time, or where you might be able to improve. You can also ask them how they would have handled things if they were in your shoes. Remember that they are most likely giving you feedback because they care enough to do so, and want to see you do things better next time. Tapping off their experience is a great way to turn the situation into a learning moment for yourself instead.

4. Allow time for improvement

Even after you’ve identified areas of improvement, remember that change doesn’t happen overnight! Make a conscious effort to keep working at it, and if the feedback was triggered because you made a mistake previously, take care not to repeat it again.

If the party who gave you the feedback is willing, you can also check in with them every now and then to ask for their thoughts on your progress. If circumstances permit, you can even actively seek out similar tasks so that you can get more practice on them. Don’t be shy to ask others for feedback on how you might be able to keep doing better as well. You never know when you might find a different perspective on how to approach such tasks!

Lastly, don’t fall into the trap of letting the fear of repeating a mistake paralyze you from trying again. And don’t spend too long beating yourself up over the criticism or wallowing in self-pity either! These are unproductive behaviours that will only stifle your growth. Simply process the feedback, understand what areas you need to improve on, and then keep moving forward instead of dwelling on the past.

Ultimately, what your co-workers and managers want to see is that you have a positive attitude towards receiving criticism or feedback. That says volumes about your commitment to the job and your professionalism in getting things done. No one expects you to be perfect at the very beginning! What they would like to see instead is that you are constantly growing and learning with every new task or opportunity that is entrusted to you, and that you have a constant hunger for self-improvement.