Do You Need a Thicker Skin at Work? Three Tips for Surviving Criticism

study reported by Tara Mohr in the New York Times shows that women have more need to be prepared to handle negative feedback. The study, conducted by Kieran Snyder for Fortune.com found that female employees were given more negative performance reviews than their male counterparts by both male and female managers. The nail in the coffin, though, is that this study also found that “76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was ‘abrasive,’ or ‘judgmental,’ or ‘strident.’ Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.” These numbers speak to the double bind that women find themselves in when they have to be competent—which includes making tough decisions and getting their ideas heard—while coming across as nice to everyone. Other studies suggest that for women to be perceived as both competent and likeable is probably impossible. Women don’t need a thicker skin at work because we’re somehow weak or fragile—an enduring stereotype used to justify why women are not promoted into leadership in greater numbers. Not only is performance feedback to women more negative, but we Western women also carry in our cellular memory the legacy of a not-so-distant past when our survival depended on being acceptable to power-wielding men. Not so long ago, Western women could not count on protection from the law, could not own property, and could not have bank accounts. Many women around the globe today still have no rights and are dependent on those with power to protect them. When others who are powerful at work are disapproving of us, we can feel like their criticism is the worst possible outcome—because, for a long time, disapproval was life threatening for us. Of course, we want to realize our potential at work and be seen as competent. What this means, though, is that we must, as competent women, learn to expect criticism and learn to manage it on our own terms, grow from it, and not let it undermine our confidence or damage our self-esteem. Here are some tips for how to deal with criticism at work:

  1. Be aware of the big picture. Read about recent research documenting the special challenges that women face in the workplace. Form a book group with colleagues at work, both women and men, to read and discuss several recent books about challenges women face in the workplace. Form a Lean In Circle. These are all good ways to get helpful context for understanding that negative feedback is part of the territory for competent women. Understanding the big picture will help you keep some perspective and sort out what is useful feedback from what may not be about you at all.
  2. Increase your awareness of your strengths. Being grounded in your sense of your own strengths is important. I often encourage the clients I coach to request feedback from coworkers, supervisors, family members, and friends about their strengths—not their weaknesses. We often don’t see ourselves as others see us, and we seldom get feedback on what we do well. Being grounded in your strengths will help you reflect on critical feedback. Feedback should always be considered for what might be useful, but being able to compare the feedback to what you know to be true about yourself and discard what doesn’t fit is crucial. Being self-aware is important, but, at the same time, remember that feedback is often more about the giver of the feedback: some people might be critical just because you are a competent woman.
  3. Build support, especially with other women. Create a “safe space” where you can share experiences and best practices for how to make sense of and cope with negative feedback. While our experiences are not all the same, of course, finding other women who have shared a particular experience in the workplace is helpful. Sharing best practices and hearing that you are not alone can help you stay focused on your career and your goals. Without this type of support, many women lose their confidence and their voice and then give up on their goals.
What has worked for you when you have gotten a negative performance review? Please post your comments, and let’s share best practices.]]>

1 thought on “Do You Need a Thicker Skin at Work? Three Tips for Surviving Criticism”

  1. I really like this: “we Western women also carry in our cellular memory the legacy of a not-so-distant past when our survival depended on being acceptable to power-wielding men. ” It says so much in one powerful sentence.
    Where I got into trouble working internally in a system was, I was willing to hear the negatove feedback, but I was also well aware of the inequities that you describe here (that this was a standard my male colleagues were not held to, for example, or that my boss was threatened by me and competitive with me). So I had a hard time taking the criticism on board at all, and was sometimes perceived as “high strung” when it came to feedback.
    Why should I get a thicker skin in order to put up with stuff that is the output of oppressive, inequitable patterns? This had me stuck for a long time. Learning to see myself as part of the bigger system, which was “bigger than I am,” helped me see (if not accept) the WHY in the unfairness arena.
    So your advice her is right on, for me, Ann.

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