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What to Say: Criticism
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How to handle tricky interview questions. More specifically, how to handle criticism.


Recently, an interviewer asked me, "What would you do in the case that a user, co-worker, or your superivisor criticized or yelled at you about your work?" and "What about in general, what would you do when someone, whether you know him/her or not, criticized or yelled at you?"

I know that this question is directed towards finding out about my personality but what would be a good answer? Do I answer that I would yell back at the person, walk away, ignore the person, or what? I am guessing that it depends on what type of person the interviewer is looking for. If I say that I don't talk (yell) back, what if the interviewer wants someone who stands up for him/herself.

Our present economy makes recruiting and sourcing an extremely exacting science. The amount of time spent in finding the right person for the job is critical and every aspect of ascertaining that you've got a good fit is necessary before making an offer. Hire the wrong person or present the wrong candidate (in the case of a recruiter) and the costs increase in many directions. The recruiter will have a lot of work to do to keep the client. The client will either have to fire the bad fit or spend even more money on hoping additional training or retraining will make the square block fit in the round hole.

So, it's one thing to answer honestly. It's another to say what you think the interviewer wants to hear. The interviewer is looking for a number of things, an honest answer and self assessment among them.

Pandering to the Interviewer

Pandering to the interviewer, telling them what they want to hear, is convenient but ineffective. Not only will the interviewer see through this, they will more or less either tune you out then and there and merely go through the motions of any further interview or else they will listen even more attentively to see how many other fabrications you'll come up with.

Better to take a moment to consider the question, who you are, what your style is, then formulate the "best foot forward" answer and speak.

Emotional Maturity

Criticism is something that is given with great difficulty. When it is expressed, it is usually done in order to help the person see where there can be improvement. The person who criticizes for the sake of making theirself feel superior at the expense of another's self esteem is the mark of someone who is not yet mature and requires a great deal of mentoring and training. They are as poor a risk as the one who yells in response to criticism.

One of the signs of a good manager or good management material is a person who is unflappable. That is to say, the person stays cool under the most rigorous of circumstances. Not only is this a sign of a good manager, it also shows the person has a high degree of emotional maturity. They can take criticism as a constructive and use it to their benefit and that of the company.

Workplace Violence

When a person has a volatile or hostile response to criticism, major red flags should go up for everyone concerned. This person has little self control, a low degree of emotional maturity, gives very little thought to acts and consequences, and is poor management material. Additionally, this is one of the indicators of a person who could become violent under the right circumstances. The liabilities are high with this type of profile. The candidate will be bypassed. It's just as well given some of the findings from SHRM, "Workplace Violence & Media Technology." The fit would be bad for both sides.

Company Goodwill

Goodwill is an important asset of every company. Part of the intangible elements that make up goodwill are quick, responsive customer service, professionalism, good problem-solving skills, tact, and a positive, upbeat attitude, in addition to good, sound knowledge of your area of responsibility. Another aspect of goodwill is being able to be nonplussed under the most trying of circumstances. These are all signs of good management material -- a person who is mature and responsible.

Unfortunately, many businesses are now employing people who do not hold those values dear and are not concerned with repeat business. Instead these employees focus on the here and now and totally disregard nurturing growth of customers and co-worker relationships. Yelling in response to criticism is one indicator that a person is lacking in goodwill and professional skills. It is best to bypass that person and look for a better candidate, whether for management or not.

One good thing that is now occurring in business, with costs rising so much and few areas for reducing those costs, is to screen candidates carefully to determine whether they possess these goodwill skills or have the potential to develop them further if there are signs that those skills are in place. Another good thing that is happening is the move toward no tolerance when it comes to violence in the workplace and violence in general.

Customer Relations

Another important aspect of how a person handles criticism is managing that type of input from a client. Jeanne Gannon provides some extremely useful suggestions in her article on "How to respond to criticism from your client." This is a time to listen carefully, not argue. This is a time to take note of what is being said and respond with tact, professionalism, and maturity.

Management Material and Training

A good manager will listen not only to the client but to their staff. A good manager, according to Amanda Besemer in "Creativity and Innovation" discusses the operative dynamics of being able to give construcive criticism and giving and receiving it. Basically, this is a valued period of learning and gaining more from the client and your relationship. It's also a time to foster company loyalty. This is a great time for idea generation, overcoming the staid past, building team spirit and cohesiveness, role modeling for senior managers.

Originally published March 8, 2001