The ability to take constructive criticism

Constructive criticism is something I receive on a regular basis. It doesn’t bother me. I know it’s the nature of the job. You work for a client - You get critiqued. It’s just the way it is. Unless you work for yourself and don’t ask for feedback from anyone.

I work closely with a coworker who cannot take constructive criticism. She seems to interpret it as a personal attack every time our boss asks her to try something a different way or to change something small.

To give you some background, my coworker shoots and edits videos and I do the graphic design. In the past, she has asked me for feedback of her work and I’ve given it to her, only to be met with excuses or justifications on why or why something is the way it is and why it wasn’t/“can’t” be done.

I’ve stopped giving honest feedback to avoid the irritation this causes me. In a meeting wth my boss the other day, this coworkers work came up and my boss confessed that she herself gets uncomfortable giving feedback to this person because she sees how angry it makes her. However, it doesn’t stop her from giving feedback, but I still think it’s pretty sad that my boss is uncomfortable voicing what changes she wants because of this persons inability to accept criticism. This coworkers work ethic (it’s terrible) is a whole nother post , but there’s that factor too.

I can’t help but think it’s silly to keep someone around working for you that you can’t even give honest feedback to. So maybe you can provide some insight:

What are your thoughts on this?
Is there some way I can deal with this?
How can I help someone receive constructive criticism?
Do you think constructive criticism is a learned skill or an inherent ability?

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It’s so frustrating dealing people who can’t take feedback. Even if I don’t agree with the feedback, it’s always good to hear other people’s views on my work. As a freelancer, I appreciate clients who take the time to give constructive feedback.

I do think taking feedback correctly is a learned skill. Design school is often so passive aggressive that people don’t know how to give or take constructive feedback.

I think you need to have a casual meeting where you voice your concerns. Let the coworker that feedback is an important part of the design process and her anger is getting in the way of this. As long as the environment is consistently positive and constructive feedback doesn’t get in the way of office politics. She is obviously feeling attacked when she receives feedback so perhaps think of ways where she feels good after receiving feedback. Make sure you don’t only give feedback when it is negative.

Or maybe it’s possible to give positive reinforcement to feedback sessions. Allow her to overhear how you deal with feedback so hopefully she can learn the correct way to receive it? Maybe this is the passive aggressive way to do it though…

Other advice is the classic critique sandwich format. Positive feedback, followed by negative feedback, followed by positive feedback. Negative stuff in the middle.

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I oversee a staff of writers, designers, videographers, that sort of thing. There are a few of them where I need to carefully weigh all my words to make absolutely sure I balance all criticisms out with other positive statements while wording everything exactly right to prevent hurt feelings and unhappiness.

If I don’t do that, here’s something typical that might happen.

“Hey, nice work Jill. What made you decide to use green instead of the blue you showed me yesterday.” Jill says, “What’s wrong with green.” Me, “Nothing, it’s great. I just wondered why you changed your mind because I liked the blue a lot too.” Jill says, “But you like blue better, don’t you?” I say, Well, maybe, but the green is very nice too. It’s fine either way."

Then the next day comes around, and everything’s changed back to blue. Jill is moping around avoiding eye contact with me. She tells Mark how insensitive I am, and how I ruined her design by passive-aggressively making her change it back to blue. And if I hate green, why don’t I just come right out and say so instead of leaving her worrying about it all night. After all, I let Tony use green on his project, but Tony never gets in trouble when he does things.

So afternoon finally rolls around and I finally confront Jill about the misunderstanding. Before I can say anything, however, she has a panicked look in her eyes, then she breaks out sobbing saying that Mark betrayed her confidence by telling me, and that now everyone is picking on her.

Aggghhh!! It’s like walking through a mine field.

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Oh wow. I have to say that Jill sounds very unstable!

I don’t know how you go about teaching someone that their work isn’t their firstborn and that it isn’t all about them, that it isn’t even really about the end client but about the end client’s customers. It was a lesson my GD professor taught us in college. If you could successfully defend why you did something the way you did it, you didn’t have go back and “do over.”

Or maybe I’m jaded because I’m in a weird segment of show business, where it does not matter what it looks like to me or the client while standing up close on the “stage,” it only matters what it looks like to the masses, and then when it’s over, it all goes in the recycling dumpster. All graphic design is ephemeral.

Asking a co-worker why they decided to use green instead of blue should be no different than pointing out a typo.

Sorry. That’s no help, probably.
I don’t do well with office politics.

Well, there really isn’t a Jill. I just made up that whole episode as sort of a combination of things I’ve actually run into over the years while art directing other people’s work.

Some people take co-workers’ viewpoints as valuable insight and information to consider, while others take the same thing as an ego-damaging attack on their worth.

When supervising other people’s work, it ups the ante considerably since friendly observations or questions can be taken as something different than they were meant to be. Some people hate being told what to do, while others seem to expect it. Some people shrivel up into a ghost at the slightest hint of criticism, while others become needlessly defensive or resentful. Others expect step-by-step directions, while others work best when given a problem and then left alone while they solve it.

Navigating around co-workers’ personalities can be difficult. Supervising them can sometimes be a nightmare of things unintentionally running off the tracks.

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The difference is that the former example is subjective, while the latter is objective. The only thing that can make the former seem more objective is statistics of how most people respond to green or blue in the same context.

BTW, here’s a way to make color combinations more objective when measuring contrast.

My wife has admitted to having problems receiving constructive criticism. She used to blame it on me every time until I softened my tone and let her make more mistakes on her own. Then she had nobody to blame but herself.

If you can’t afford to let this person make mistakes, the next best thing is to pull them aside and let them know directly (with a soft tone) that they should see constructive criticism as a learning opportunity and not an attack. It’s called humility. It can be learned. Some people seem to be born with humility, but most people learn humility only after they’ve been humbled enough times by failure.

This person needs to learn that she is not the customer of her work. And the best way to improve the work is to listen to the customer to learn how well her work is working for her customers.

Agreed. The quality of the client’s product is the only thing that matters.

There is always a tightrope of sorts we walk between injecting enough passion and keeping enough emotional distance. Some people can never find the balance, and for many, it comes only after considerable time in practical application of their creativity. If it can be taught, attempts to instill should be made at the earliest possible stage.

When I started working full-time in an Engineering environment, they sort of considered my graphic designer presence among them as an experiment, and at least half of them unequivocally anticipated failure. While their training and methods incorporate an important balance between creative confidence and self-questioning, along with ever-present peer review, their previous experience with graphics professionals must have led them to believe they’d have to tiptoe around the artistic sensitivity they fully expected me to exude. Once this became clear to me, I made it a point to expressly claim a complete lack of personal feelings in connection with our collaborations, with the only priority being the best possible end-product. I believe this tactic earned me their respect much more quickly than it might have otherwise materialized, and they now readily defer to my demonstrated expertise, as do I to theirs. The fruitfulness of that foundational positioning has indeed made the “experiment” a success 6 years on, and it’s still some of the most difficult and fulfilling work I’ve ever done. But most importantly, the work-product has resulted in improvements to the client’s products, and the market’s perception of their quality. No amount of whining could have got me to this place.

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I wasn’t comparing color to typo. I was comparing level of conflict.
as in:
“You have a typo here.”
“Oh I’ll fix it.”
“Why did you change the blue to green?”
“Oh, I was reviewing other parts of the client’s work with Mark and he used green, so was keeping things consistent.”
IOW, about the same level of angst. Near zero.

The level of conflict may be the same, but some people are more reluctant to make subjective changes than objective changes. Some less experienced people will see choices such as layout, colors, or fonts as matters of personal taste more than matters of eye-flow, readability, contrast ratio, or consistency until they are forced to see the objectivity within the subjectivity. And in other situations, the level of conflict is different. A typo will be far more serious and costly than a lack of color consistency.

In some specific situations, I agree that whether to use green instead of blue should be no different than pointing out a typo. But even in those situations, people who are more attached to subjective choices will take the conflict to the next level by treating change requests as criticism of their own personal taste. On the other side of the conflict, a more diplomatic person will know what they are up against when they criticize. I know that’s easier said than done from my own lack of diplomacy.

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