Turning negatives into positives

You can cut down on stress at work by managing criticism effectively, whether you are the sender or the receiver

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Stress in the workplace is not conducive to either productivity or personal wellbeing and it is a problem that doesn’t appear to be going away. Recent research in the UK by mental health charity Mind found work is the most stressful factor in people's lives and how people are trying to deal with stress makes for worrying reading.

Nearly three in five people said they drink after work and one in seven drinks during the working day in a bid to cope with workplace stress, while 15% of employees are taking antidepressants, and one in four taking either over the counter or prescribed sleeping tablets. And this is all what they are doing while still getting to work. One in five said they found work so stressful they took time off sick (giving their employers a different reason for the absence).

This is of course not just a problem in the UK. It is a global phenomenon. In the US, for example, unemployment rates may be falling but stress levels continue to rise. The 2013 Work Stress Survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Everest College found more than eight in 10 Americans said they are stressed out on the job amid heavier workloads and low pay.

There are some drivers for stress that are difficult to control – across the globe, job losses still remain a real possibility in many industries, pay has stagnated and a difficult commute will probably always be just that, but there is one cause of stress that ought to be taken out of the equation and that is effectively managing workplace criticism.

Reacting to criticism

A recent piece of research from the Washington State Department of Labour and Industries about workplace bullying gave the top example of bullying as unwarranted or invalid criticism, and yet constructive criticism can improve motivation, productivity and professional development. Giving and receiving feedback is an essential part of communicating well and so good constructive criticism skills keep interactions with colleagues positive and productive while accepting and learning from criticism can make you a better employee. But it isn’t always as simple as that. The process of delivering and hearing criticism is rarely easy. Differences in communication styles are magnified in sensitive situations and how each person handles praise and reacts to criticism stems from deeply ingrained patterns that are hard to break.

So it’s important that both the giver and the receiver of criticism behave in a responsible and appropriate way.

‘Criticism is about both the sender of the message and the receiver,’ says Dr Rob Yeung, director at leadership consulting firm and author of E is for Exceptional: The New Science of Success. ‘So sometimes criticism can be hard to accept because the sender has phrased it insensitively, inappropriately or has insufficient credibility. At other times, criticism can be hard to accept because the receiver may be more sensitive either as an enduring personality trait or simply because the receiver is under stress.’

As finance professionals, technical excellence will be at the heart of your work, but effective communication with colleagues and other parts of the business is just as crucial. Sometimes, the fear of confrontation when criticisms are aired can develop into a paralysing apathy of avoidance and eventually communication breaks down entirely. When that happens, the effectiveness of the team – and sometimes a whole business – can be significantly damaged. Changing this means changing the way you view criticism.

‘I often say to clients I'm coaching that criticism is like a gift,’ says Yeung. ‘People don't always find it easy to offer criticism, so you as the recipient should always be grateful that someone has taken the time to offer you feedback. That criticism could be helpful in terms of allowing you to do your job better. So listen to the criticism and ask questions only to seek clarification.

‘Yes, there may have been extenuating circumstances, but trying to explain why you did what you did can easily come across as defensive. So my advice is simply to listen, listen, listen.’

If you are on the receiving end of some censure at work, it’s imperative that you stay calm in a professional environment and don’t get defensive because it will stop you from listening to the person delivering the negative feedback.

And if you are on the receiving end of criticism, how should you move forward in your professional life in a positive way. Yeung says that analysing it in a calm and collected way is important.

‘Think about the criticism before you decide to change how you go about doing your job. If you're not sure about something, go back to your critic and ask for further clarification. Or ask colleagues that you consider to be friends for their thoughts too. Ask them to be entirely honest with you. Do they think you could benefit from doing things differently?’

However, that doesn't mean that you should take all criticism to heart. Some comments may say more about the critic than you.

‘A small number of critics find it much easier to pour scorn on others for even fairly trivial mistakes and wrongdoings,’ warns Yeung. ‘So ask yourself whether their comments are actually well-intentioned and genuinely likely to be helpful or whether the criticism is nit-picking about something that in the grand scheme of things is fairly inconsequential.’

Be prepared

If you happen to be the person dishing out the negative feedback, Yeung’s top tip for entering a potentially sensitive situation is to make sure that you are fully prepared.

‘If you're thinking of broaching a difficult discussion with someone, your best bet is to take a few minutes to prepare. Think about not just what you think the person did wrong but also the consequences of their action or inaction. Jot down what you'd like to say and then have a go at saying them out loud to yourself. Sometimes, you'll hear that what you're saying just doesn't make enough sense or perhaps it sounds too harsh or not direct enough.

‘Don't forget to think about how you come across too. The same words can have a dramatically different impact if you bark them at someone versus saying them in a slower, softer voice.’

One last thought. There is perhaps, another way, and one that swerves criticism altogether.

A study from the University of Michigan Business School compared team performance to the frequency of praise and criticism given within the teams. It found that the best-performing teams used about six times as many positive comments for every negative one. It found that the worst performing teams, on average, used three negative comments for every positive one.

Work done well deserves praise and recognition, but employers can often overlook the simple step of consistently acknowledging good performance. The desire for approval is a basic human need, going back to childhood, and is not something that people grow out of, so recognition and appreciation are strongly linked to employee engagement and productivity.

So perhaps in the workplace, as with children, positive reinforcement is better than a telling off.

"‘I often say to clients I'm coaching that criticism is like a gift. People don't always find it easy to offer criticism, so you as the recipient should always be grateful that someone has taken the time to offer you feedback.’"

Dr Rob Yeung