How to Handle Criticism From A Supervisor

by | May 16, 2024 | Healthy Relationships, Nonviolent Communication, Power Dynamics

Have you ever needed to handle criticism from a supervisor?

Fielding criticism at work can be challenging for many reasons – especially when we don’t have a longstanding, trusting relationship with the person “in charge.”

We can go into shame.
We want to protect ourselves and what our best intentions acknowledged.
We lose trust in the person holding power over us.

I remember when I was completing my post-doctoral internship in my early 40’s, and I was in a position of being “supervised” by a young woman in her late 20s who had recently graduated, was new to the field and had infinitely less experience than I had in the field of human development and depth psychology.

She was a nice person. She had good intentions. She believed in what she was “teaching” me, but she and I saw things very differently when it came to diagnosing and treating “patients.”

The fact that she was my “supervisor” and had more structural power than I did in the systemic hierarchy meant that her opinion “mattered” more than mine, which created a deep ethical conflict inside of me: When I pretended to agree with her, I earned some ease and external harmony from her approval and positive evaluations of my work, but it cost me my integrity and honesty.

On the other hand, when I spoke about how things were authentically landing on me and the different way that I saw things, while I met my needs for authentic self-expression, I also received a mid-process evaluation that described me as critical, resistant to change, and lacking in the ability to be open to new ideas or diverse perspectives.

Learning how we might navigate these kinds of relational conditions – especially when issues of unequal power are at place – has been a deep interest and practice for me for decades. I cared about how my supervisor saw me and experienced me, and wished no ill-will on her, and at the same time, I wasn’t willing to simply implement things that I thought were ineffective at best, and harmful at worst, just to make an authority figure happy.

These conversations take tremendous skill, consciousness, courage and open-heartedness. I’ve been practicing getting better at them than I was able to be 10 years ago, and absolutely enjoyed diving into a question about a similar situation on a recent pod cast call.

How To Handle Criticism From a Supervisor:

  1.  Have a clear intention.  If your boss has been critical and you’d like a further conversation, one of the best things to do is get clear on your own intention. What is it you’re trying to accomplish?  Do you want to connect with your boss, or re-educate him?  The clearer you are on your intention, the higher chance you have of being able to hit your target.
  2. Ask for consent to have a conversation.  This is probably not a “pass you in the hallway on the way to get coffee” kind of interaction.  Being intentional about an opportunity to talk helps ensure a sense of focus and attention.
  3. Practice the conversation with someone else.  Role play what you might say, and field as many different responses to your comments as possible.
  4. Ground your discussion in a micro-moment.  What, exactly, was said that you’d like to revisit?  Ensuring you’re both on the same page about what was said means you can delve into the meaning behind the words.
  5. Frame up the needs behind the criticism in the best possible light.  “When you said I was a disappointment because the project was late, I want you to know I really understood your deep desire to hand this project over in a timely fashion.  I know you value the other team’s time and were interested in ensuring they had what they needed in order to complete their part, because you respect their time.  Is that right?”
  6. Non-defensively discuss your side of the situation:  “I handed in the project late because I felt a deep need to get the info correct, and I was unwilling to hand it in without knowing that the facts were there.”

At this stage of the discussion, it will generally be very tempting for us to search for consensus and reach for agreement.  However, if we allow ourselves to sit in the tension of different perspectives by not forcing a resolution, we can often be quite pleasantly surprised by what comes next.  Not every disagreement needs to end in shared reality–our goal is not to coerce someone else into seeing our point of view.

Criticism from a supervisor is difficult to handle.  However, by following these steps, we can present our point of view with nonviolence and with a spirit of connection.  Are you interested in hearing an example from real life?  Check out this week’s episode of the podcast, or read How to Show Up With Empathy in the Face of Judgment and Rejection.

What do you struggle with when dealing with criticism from a supervisor?  I’d love to know.  Leave a comment below.

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