Career Advice

How to Handle Constructive Criticism at Work

handle constructive criticism at work

According to the Harvard Business Review, employees prefer receiving negative or corrective feedback over positive feedback. That makes sense because feedback helps us get better at what we do. However, that doesn’t mean that constructive criticism is always easy to take at the moment. Or that managers are always very good at delivering it. Still, it’s important that you learn to handle constructive criticism well. This quick guide will show you how. 

Constructive Criticism Definition

In the workplace, constructive criticism is feedback intended to help a worker make improvements. Ideally, it is actionable, meaning that the recipient walks away with specific actions they can take to better their performance. It should also be specific, as general criticism is too vague to really act on.

Constructive Criticism Examples

Here’s an example of a criticism that is too general to be constructive:

Jenna’s boss is frustrated that her reports are disorganized and difficult to read. He emails her stating, “Jenna, these reports are a mess! I’m sure there is great information here, but I can’t get through it. Please fix this.”

Now, the same criticism framed in a way that is more constructive:

“Jenna, I’m struggling to find the information I need here. Your research is great, and I want you to get credit for your ideas. Perhaps you could include a table of contents at the beginning, and add some subheadings to make things easier to find. It would also help the executives to have a summary paragraph at the top.”

Here’s another example of constructive criticism in the workplace:

“Hey Bob, the next time you bring the auto parts out for delivery, it would help if you could mark each box with the delivery zip code. The drivers could just grab the box intended for them without having to double-check paperwork.”

There are two things that are important here. 

First, the constructive criticism detailed what the problem was, and gave specific suggestions to improve. That’s important. Providing the ‘why’ helps the person understand what the problem is, and that they aren’t simply being picked at. The detailed suggestions help them to actually do something about it.

If you read the constructive criticism directed at Jenna, you can see that it uses a technique described by MIT Sloan. This involves simply stating your intention when criticizing someone. Jenna’s boss says they want her to get credit for her ideas. This can help Jenna listen to the criticism without assuming her boss is simply trying to make her feel bad.

Constructive Criticism vs. Destructive Criticism

Do you take constructive criticism poorly? You may need to work on that. On the other hand, your boss may be using destructive criticism if they have low managerial skills. Such criticism can be damaging. It’s also ineffective.

Destructive criticism undermines confidence, causes embarrassment, and negatively impacts your ability to do your job. Here are some signs of destructive criticism:

  • Delivering criticisms in public
  • Using extreme phrasing such as ‘You always’ or ‘You never’
  • Attacking your intentions or motives
  • Refusal to provide specific suggestions or examples

If you walk away from a situation feeling denigrated, and unsure of what to do, you probably received destructive criticism.

destructive criticism in public workplace

When you receive constructive criticism, you may feel mildly embarrassed or not. However, you will also walk away with specific ideas to implement. Constructive criticism also feels like a critique of your performance, not your character.

How Do You Handle Destructive Criticism?

Be clear and firm, without being emotional. Remember that even destructive criticism can have good intentions behind it. Managers are sometimes poor communicators. It’s up to you to spell out exactly what you need when receiving negative feedback. 

For example, you might say “It doesn’t help me improve my performance when you say I don’t care about my job. Could you please give me two or three things I can work on today to improve?”

Of course, there’s a point where destructive criticism becomes toxic and abusive. At that point, you may need to escalate things to HR.

How to Take Constructive Criticism

There are two things to consider when you receive constructive criticism at work. 

The first is that you want to be sure you understand and communicate that to the coworker, boss, or client. The second is that you make plans to act on that criticism. 

Here are some steps you can take to handle constructive criticism like a champ: 

  1. Take a breath and don’t react too quickly
  2. Keep in mind that critical feedback is good and necessary
  3. Don’t interrupt the speaker, no matter how tempting
  4. Repeat back to them their points in your own words to verify that you understand
  5. Thank them for the feedback
  6. Ask detailed questions or for examples without being defensive
  7. Communicate what you will do specifically to incorporate any changes.
  8. Request a follow-up or future communication

This may sound like a lot, but remember that responding to criticism doesn’t need to be some lengthy, formal process. It can be as simple as:

“Hey, thanks for the feedback. Just to be sure I understand, you want a summary at the top of my reports for the people who don’t need to read all the details. I should also add a table of contents so that the team is able to quickly find what they need. Would it help to simply create a separate, executive summary?”

Seeing Constructive Criticism as an Opportunity

Here’s something to consider: managers rarely waste time providing constructive feedback to workers they don’t have faith in. This kind of feedback is intended to improve performance. When you receive it, embrace it as an opportunity to stand out as an effective employee!


  • Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

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