October 22, 2014 Practice Points

Criticism—Fear Not!

By Michaelyn Corbett
Navigant Consulting is a corporate sponsor of the Section of Litigation. Neither the ABA nor ABA entities endorse non-ABA products or services. This article should not be construed as an endorsement.

In her recent New York Times article, “Learning to Love Criticism,” author and career coach Tara Mohr explores recent study results that illustrate a stark contrast in the workplace performance reviews received by male versus female employees. Specifically, a large percentage of the reviews (76 percent) received by women included negative “personality” criticisms. This compared with only two percent of males’ supervisory feedback including negative personality criticisms. While these gaping differences in reviews warrant a deeper understanding, women nevertheless need a clear strategy on how best to proceed—without being distracted or discouraged from their pursuits.

Women, especially those in positions of authority and leadership, can and should expect an appreciable amount of criticism (both personal and professional) to be hurled their way. Women must equip themselves with the toolbox of skills that will allow them to persevere in an environment of enthusiastic praise or of strident criticism; in other words, women need to develop the “thick skins” that their male counterparts seem to have developed more easily.

Growing thick skins is no small feat because, historically, women have been socialized to be likeable, and are prone to take to heart what others may say or think about them in ways that may ultimately harm them. Mohr points out that “[f]or centuries, women couldn’t protect their own safety through physical, legal or financial means.” Instead, female survival strategies have often relied on cultivating “niceness” to curry favor with those in positions of power. While times have changed, women have inherited this psychological legacy of that history—one that continues to affect them today.

The truth is that distinctive and innovative work is often controversial work. We can help ourselves by remembering that all substantive work elicits both praise and criticism. However, when we internalize others’ opinions, we often suffer emotional highs and lows that dissuade us from putting ourselves at risk for more of the same.

What are some effective ways that we women can retrain our minds? Let’s consider a few ideas:

•Identify another woman whose response to criticism you admire. This may allow you to conceptualize new responses for yourself. For example, in her book, Living History, Hillary Clinton is quoted as saying: “Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.”

•Interpret critical feedback as providing insight into the perspective of the giver rather than a personal reflection of your shortcomings. “Reframing” might allow better filtering of valuable feedback rather than an overreaction to information that is not really personalized.

•Step back and seriously consider the merit of any criticisms you receive. Consider whether the remarks truly mirror what you believe about yourself. Even if a perceived criticism rings true for you, is it necessarily a negative trait that could hold you back from advancement? Could the remarks merely reflect a social stereotype of what women should or shouldn’t represent?

In the end, learning to respond appropriately to both criticism and praise is an important rite of passage. Learning to free ourselves from the tumultuous impacts that criticism has often imposed is a worthy goal that all women can embrace.


Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, criticism, women, performance reviews

Michaelyn Corbett, Ph.D. works at Navigant Economics in Chicago, Illinois

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