Criticism is almost inevitable when you’re a project manager. Everybody seems to question your decisions, and it can become very frustrating if you have team members who only know how to criticize instead of giving constructive feedback.
Project managers have to deal with possible criticism from two sides - from team members, and from those above them, who are asking why there are difficulties with the project.
What Leads to Criticism in the first place?
Whenever there is a difficult project to handle, criticism is bound to happen - even if all things go as planned, but especially if the project starts lagging behind or you have to put up extra hours to meet deadlines.
In such cases, team members can make or break your project. How they react depends heavily on how the company usually functions - is there cohesion, great communication and teamwork, or do people resolve to bickering as soon as there’s an issue instead of solving it quickly?
When things are not going smoothly for the organization, leaders and managers are often the first target for the frustration and dissatisfaction of employees.
As a project manager, can you handle criticism well, or do you think your team members are afraid of you? Did someone try to criticize and you reacted poorly?
How you react to criticism and disapproval from their side determines whether the outcome will benefit the company.
To ensure your project is successful and not disrupted, you need to mold all negative feedback into something you can work with. Here’s how you do that:
1. Learn how to Deliver Feedback and Teach Others.
Almost everyone agrees that if negative feedback is delivered appropriately - as constructive feedback - it improves the performance.
Employees seem to prefer constructive criticism over positive feedback.
Whether criticism is done constructively or not, don't allow it to take a toll on you. How you handle criticism affects how your team views you. By upholding the right values and demanding that everybody shares feedback the right way - constructively - you will face less disruptions to the project.
How do you ensure that those values are followed by everyone on the team?
By ensuring the team agrees with the company culture. The Attraction-Selection-Attrition (ASA) method plays an important role here.
The method states that:
- Potential employees are attracted to companies whose company culture matches their personality and values. Talented professionals might decline working with your and on your project if they feel the culture is negative and unhealthy.
- The company will often select employees based on how their personality aligns with the propagated company culture.
- Employees who don’t fit in with the culture will be ineffective and unsatisfied while working there, and on your projects, which leads to attrition (leaving the job - involuntary or voluntary).
By fostering a positive company culture, you will minimize any negative impacts that difficult team members might have on the project. Those who don’t adapt will most often leave on their own.
Instead of letting difficult members break your project, you can channel their remarks into something positive. To do that, you need to learn how to handle their remarks and criticizing.
2. Don't Take Criticism Personally
No matter how bad of a remark you might get from a difficult team member, never succumb to it.
You might feel that the team member criticized you because they have a personal grudge against you or because they just want to derail the whole project.
Learn to isolate your feelings from your work performance when being criticized. Even when the feedback from your team members target your weak points, don't dwell on them.
Apply a different perspective: When the project is difficult and tensions are high, could it be that they just have some other ideas on how to handle certain tasks but they resolved to criticism instead of suggesting it? Ask them directly what they had in mind.
3. Listen to What Team Members are Saying
When a team member resolves to criticism, don't shut them down - they just might be trying to convey the message in a wrong way.
It is natural to want to get defensive and shut the criticizer up the moment you know you won't like what they are about to say.
If you stop them, you won't know the reason why they resolved to criticism. The best managers can handle negativity, this is what makes them good.
Listen to your team members even if they resolve to pointing out your flaws - because you have them. Everybody does. Maybe these stand in the way of successful project completion.
While nobody likes to listen about their flaws, pointing them out can shed some light on areas where you might have to lean on team member’s specific expertise to get things done.
Letting them speak will also give you a good idea on whether they truly point out an issue or if they are just simply being rude and a bad team player.
The most important thing here - after you have listened to their feedback, you can reiterate what was said. That way, you can confirm whether you’re on the same page and clear up any misunderstandings.
4. Avoid Reacting Impulsively
The key to professionally handling criticism, disruptions and negativities during a project is to avoid reacting impulsively or defensively.
Many people’s reaction to criticism is poor. This is more common when the critics are perceived as subordinates, or lower rank, and bad managers might be tempted to get nasty and try to put them in their place by pulling rank.
Don't get bitter or allow the criticism to derail you from accomplishing the task at hand. Trading words with or pointing out the flaws of whoever is criticizing you does not speak well of you as a team leader.
Such behavior can and will not only weaken your authority, but have a toxic impact on the whole company culture as it’ll shift your focus and have you trying to validate and reestablish your authority instead of handling the task at hand.
5. Turn the Negative Feedback into New Opportunities
People do not handle criticism well. They become less motivated and don't work as hard as they should when they are criticized.
A good way to handle criticism from team members is to see it as an avenue for learning.
- Every feedback is an opportunity to improve. As a project manager, you need to constantly reinvent, renew and pivot yourself.
- Feedback, be it good or bad, will help you realize what you might have missed.
- Don't blame your flaws or failures on external sources, rather focus on working on your shortcomings.
- Embracing your shortcomings will enable you to make the most of criticisms.
When you are criticized, no matter how unpleasant it sounds, treat the criticism as a stepping stone to the next level. Still, you need to let the team members know that just bashing out critic after critic doesn’t help in the long run.
Past successes and achievements do not give you a free pass. You need to strive towards getting even better.
Employ a growth mindset - how can you turn that feedback into something you can work with?
Managers who make positive use of the feedback, however negative, and work on molding it into constructive suggestions, will always excel.
Helping your team members learn how to accurately convey their dissatisfaction by turning it into something positive will help the project and company in the long run.
6. Let your Team Members Know they Shouldn’t Fear Offense
Approximately 41% of people faced with criticism or any constructive feedback have gotten into an argument with the critic because they felt unjustly criticized.
About 8% have admitted that they avoid criticizing or advising for fear of offending others.
How you handle criticism says a lot about your personality.
- How you react will determine whether you deserve respect or not.
- It will also set an example for them to follow when you have feedback for them as well. By handling feedback from them well, they will try to follow suit.
- Arguing back offensively isn't an attribute of a good manager, rather it will put you on the spot and speaks ill of your character.
- Being toxic will also prevent your team members from giving you any type of feedback in the future.
- You need to show a high level of composure, patience and executive presence when faced with criticism or feedback that has no constructive component whatsoever.
Your team members should know they can share feedback at any time without fear of backlash. Most importantly, you need to acknowledge their feedback - if their suggestions seem to be the better option, act on it and show them you value them.
When they feel valued, they will be less inclined to resolve to criticism, and will prefer to come with constructive suggestions.
Project management is tough, and you need to be able to handle the stress that comes with it. It’s not just about juggling all the tasks, operations and pipelines, it’s also about how your team members play along and how you handle disruptive players.
No matter the level of stress you feel when handling a difficult project, ensure that you do not transfer the aggression of the stress to team members who might question some of your decisions.
Instead, provide an outlet where they can leave their feedback without any fear of repercussions. Before the project even starts, you can determine how they should share their feedback.
Having a predetermined process will limit any disruptions from team members. Instead of stopping tasks and questioning your decisions, they will share suggestions, or demand clarifications.
You, as a manager, should be ready to respond to their feedback and channel it towards successful project completion.
Heather Redding is a part-time assistant manager, solopreneur and writer based in Aurora, Illinois. She is also an avid reader and a tech enthusiast. When Heather is not working or writing, she enjoys her Kindle library and a hot cup of coffee. Reach out to her on Twitter.