How to welcome criticism with a smile

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Q: Chief Stew, Anonymous, 26:18186999 – angry business man screaming at employee in the office

“We just finished our first charter season with our new owner and it didn’t go very well- the boss was unhappy with the food and the service. The captain is furious and has just announced he is calling one-on-one meetings to discuss what we could have done better and whether we’re going to keep our jobs. I feel like we’re being treated unfairly: the boss is a bit of a nightmare and there are several new crew this season that I had no time to train. Also it’s my first season as Chief so I’m really worried he is going to say I am not good enough to do this job. How do I defend not only myself, but my team?“

A: The Crew Coach:

What a shame that things haven’t gone so well for you this season. But before you start getting yourself all worked up, you don’t know yet exactly what the captain is going to say to you. It’s understandable that you’re worried—the situation does sound tense—but by anticipating that you’re going to be treated unfairly and getting yourself in a bother before you’ve even heard his feedback, you’re potentially making the situation worse than it needs to be. In order to effectively receive, hear and process the feedback he is going to give you, you need to remain in a calm state.

Of course, I don’t know your captain. Yes, he might scream and shout and threaten jobs, but your role is to not react in a way that exacerbates the situation. It might help if you think about the captain’s perspective for a moment: why is he reacting this way? If you consider that maybe he is embarrassed that the boss didn’t enjoy his trip, and that he may be worried about his own job as a result, you might get a clearer understanding of his angry reaction.

The point is that this situation is still in your power to turn around. And you can protect your team, and calm the situation down by accepting the captain’s criticism with maturity and grace (even if his feedback style has very little of either.) This is your ego coming up against his, so you need to tell your ego to get out of the way in order to sail through this successfully.

Here are some strategies for gracefully accepting criticism that might help you.

Go into the meeting as calm as you can possibly be. Don’t waste time and energy beforehand imagining worst-case scenarios or going over arguments for your defence in your head. You don’t know what he’s going to say yet, remember? Just stay calm and aim to take at least one helpful bit of feedback out of the experience.

Listen. Often, when people are angry, they just want to know that they’re being heard. Whatever you do, don’t jump in while he’s criticising, or interrupt him with your side of the story— as to his ears it will probably all sound like excuses. If you want to be heard in turn, then allow him to speak. A lot of the time the anger will start dissipating of its own accord, and a real conversation can begin.

Acknowledge that things didn’t go well and that you understand his disappointment. Do not, under any circumstances, indicate that you think that it’s unfair that you’re being disciplined, or that the boss is ‘a bit of a nightmare.’ The boss is not going to change, and your perception of the fairness of the situation is irrelevant to the captain. Following this path will only fan the flames of anger.

Ask for his opinion on how you could improve. As much as you might be feeling hard done by, don’t forget that this captain has a lot of experience in seeing teams work together successfully, whether as a captain or while he was working his way up through the ranks. Make sure he knows that you want to get better at your job, and show that you value his experience and advice.

When you do need to ‘mount a defence’, make sure that you own where you went wrong or could have done better. For example, ‘Service standards weren’t high with the new girls as there wasn’t really enough time to train them, but perhaps I could have accompanied them to the dinner table a bit more in the early stages until they got the hang of it. I’m looking forward to training them and becoming a smooth team before the next trip.’ If the trip didn’t go well, then it’s absolutely your job as a leader to accept that you had a part to play in that.

Finish on a high. Reiterate that you know it didn’t go well and that you want the opportunity to learn from it and do better. Put his mind at rest that your team will be prepared for the next trip and that it won’t happen again.

Remember, you don’t have to agree with every bit of criticism he gives you. But you do have to show that you listened to him, acknowledged the problem, and accepted your part in it. Above all, if you want to the chance to succeed in this job, you need to show him that you’ll do everything you can to make sure the boss’ next trip is a great success.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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