Consider criticism: is it feedback necessary for improvement or the quickest way to shut down self-esteem? 
 
Last Friday night my email pinged on my phone. I opened it to see the most dreaded note of the year – the evaluation for my keynote at the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics was ready to view.  I knew that I was in good company, as nearly 100 speakers who also made presentations at the conference were simultaneously receiving notice that their evaluations were ready to read.  I opened the message attachment.  Within the PDF was feedback, praise, criticism, and the occasional inevitable smack-down from people who did not enjoy what I shared.
 
Focusing on the Negative
 
What is it about human nature that loves to focus on the negative?  I had 110 positive comments (my husband counted) and 22 negative ones.  I quickly read through the positive comments, not stopping to internalize or appreciate them.  I found the negatives, many of which stung.  One of the themes of my keynote was the message that compliance and ethics officers are part of a movement changing the world.  One person wrote…
“For me it was contrived and felt fake. I’m a realist and know in my 16 years in ethics and compliance that we can make a difference, but we are not changing the world.”  A couple of others accused me of being egotistical, shouting, and being self-promotional.  Ouch. 
 
Compliance officers are regularly asked to do the impossible in trying to please everyone.  How can we possibly find an online training course that will satisfy the desires of an employee population in 20 countries, or one with learners ranging in age from 19 to 69?  One of my clients put out an innovative course based on gamification where people get points for getting questions right and can compete against their co-workers.  Nearly everyone loved it, but my friend is still fixated on the three negative emails from people who hated it and felt it was “too simplistic” and “sent the wrong message about the importance of ethics and compliance.” 
 
Should We Ignore It?
 
Newscaster Megyn Kelly was quoted in Oprah magazine this month saying, “Reading negative remarks about yourself online is like breathing bus exhaust.  With each one you read, you let your detractors steal your mojo.  Life’s too short for that.”  Whether in anonymous internet forums or on evaluation forms, people feel great freedom to criticize when they don’t have to look the person in the face to deliver their appraisal.  Some people get a sense of power in tearing others down when they can hide behind their anonymity or the computer screen. 
 
Can It Be Useful?
 
It’s also useful to remember that criticism can be constructive and make you better.  Jack Canfield, the author of The Success Principles, encourages readers actively to solicit feedback.  When I read that I recoiled – why would I ever want to actively seek out criticism? 
Canfield makes the case compellingly that we can never grow as people or in our profession unless we are alerted to the areas in which we can improve.  He states that most people will be tentative in giving real feedback at first, expecting a defensive response to their honesty.  However, if you can overcome the natural instinct to defend yourself, and instead internalize the pieces of constructive criticism that are useful, people will begin to be confident in giving you feedback, which will help you to improve.  When I decided to actively seek out feedback and stop taking it personally, I allowed the responses to be a pathway to improvement and I grew in my abilities.
 
Internalizing the Positive
 
While evaluating negative criticism can be useful, never forget to spend time enjoying the positive feedback you receive. No one is universally liked, and no one approach will work for all people, so it’s only natural that some people will like the way you communicate or the training that you give, and other people will not.  By internalizing the positive statements that people make you can continue to do the things that are working.  This will make you more effective.
 
Criticism can help you to build up your skills or tear down your self-esteem – the choice of what to internalize and how to use it is up to you.