How to Manage Criticism Effectively

How to Manage Criticism Effectively

We creative people are familiar with criticism. We get it almost every day from clients, bosses and other people who "know better." They criticize our work, decisions and ideas about design, development, writing and other creative endeavors.

Typically, when we’re being criticized, we feel uncomfortable. We feel a concrete wall rising around us, blood filling our eyes and steam emanating from our head. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly like that, but it’s close. Am I right?

Criticism, like everything else in the universe, has its own energy, and it’s palpable; being criticized is unpleasant, and the negative vibes flow.

How can we go with the flow and change the negative feelings into positive results? We’ll talk about that in this article.

A Lesson from Aikido

Aikido is a Japanese martial art. The word means "the Way of unifying life energy" or "the Way of harmonious spirit." Aikido was developed with one goal: that practitioners be able to defend themselves and simultaneously protect their attacker from injury.

Rather than attempting to oppose the force of an attack, an aikido practitioner incorporates the energy and momentum of their attacker’s moves and redirects it. It requires less physical strength than other martial arts, but much skill.


Let’s imagine that you are an aikido master under attack–by which I mean that you have done a great job at work but are being criticized. What’s the smartest thing to do?

Look at the criticism as a form of assistance and turn it into a learning tool. Defend yourself without getting into a fight with your client, spoiling your relationship with him and, ultimately, losing them entirely. I can’t tell you that changing your attitude toward criticism is easy, but it’s certainly achievable (though it might take time).

Look at the truth in the criticism, not just the manner it’s delivered in. If you do, it could help you fix mistakes in your work and learn from them.

Four Steps for Processing Criticisms

Here are four simple steps you can take to understand and act on criticism.

Step 1: Determine the Purpose of the Criticism

The purpose is likely either constructive or destructive; the former is meant to advise and help you optimize your work, and the latter is to point out your shortcomings (usually stemming from envy or the other’s desire to assert their authority at your expense).

If the criticism is destructive and has only to do with personal interest, then ignore and forget it. If it’s constructive, move on to the next step.

Step 2: Analyze the Validity of the Criticism

Think about it, and then think about it again. Determine which of the critic’s suggestions you can adopt and which are unfeasible to act on. Usually, though, the reason for not taking good advice is rooted in the peculiarities of our personality: ideological, religious, political, aesthetic or technological (the last two are the most common reasons for us professionals).

Step 3: Define the Corrective Action (If Needed)

Once you have determined that the purpose of the criticism is constructive and you’ve thought about the validity of the criticism, correct your work as needed. After you’ve considered the suggestions, get to work. Don’t doubt yourself; all doubts should have been left behind in the second step.

If you determine that there is no corrective action needed, explain your decision to the person that provided you the feedback.

Step 4: Learn from the Critique

When your great work is done, and you’ve received praise and emotional and material gratification, think of everything you have learned during the corrective action you took. Write it down in a journal, codify it into your workflow, and look at the corrective action as an additional tool in your arsenal. Create an algorithm that will help you follow the optimal path in the future.

Tips and Ideas for Criticism Management

Here are some tips and things to keep in mind for managing criticism and feedback.

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About the Author

Vlad Novikov (@VladNovo) is a front-end and WordPress theme developer who loves everything about the process of website creation. He’s also an amateur photographer, guitarist, husband and newbie father. He recently founded the Portfolior, which you can follow on Twitter: @portfolior.

This was published on Dec 14, 2010


Justin Dec 14 2010

I wrote a very similar article on this (more specific to designers):

Helen Dec 14 2010

Very interesting and usefull article!

Usman Dec 14 2010

HMM – Vlad!

You are absolutely right we some time deals negatively with criticism, as we are not supposed to, because there must be some thing wrong with us.
So we’ve to think that what we are doing wrong, and as specified that when you over come the criticism you must note the things you have just done.

thanks for the help VLAD.

Gabriele Maidecchi Dec 14 2010

I think criticism always needs to be seen in a positive light. Unless it’s the kind of criticism made for the sake of it, there’s very often something to learn from someone opposing your ideas and providing a different view or approach. What takes practice is the ability of “keeping cool” and learn to see the problem from the other’s perspective. It’s something that definitely makes you grow as a person and as a business.

Joshua Dec 14 2010

Thanks for this article. It’s not that it says anything new, but it was made interesting in the way you wrote it, by making the entire experience analogous to a martial art. I wa sactually able to relate to this better than some of the others I’ve read. Good work.

Young Dec 14 2010

“If the criticism is valid, take corrective actions. If not, forget about it.” More often than not, the client won’t let you forget about it. There are as many people out there who are incapable of knowing when to stop criticizing as there are people incapable of dealing with criticisms. If you’ve worked on a multi-person project you know there always is that one person who always insists on that the way he/she does things is correct, and everyone should do it that way – how do you deal with that? What if they won’t give it a rest? The principles of Aikido might come into play here, but not in the way Vlad described it; we should use their negative energy to make them fall over, or pummel them to the ground so they writhe in pain.

Paula Dec 14 2010

One of the more useful articles I have read recently. Very well written. Especially useful for creative type work such as design where it is so subjective.

Smashing Buzz Dec 15 2010

criticism better way of learning.

Steven Dec 15 2010

I think all criticism needs to be transformed into something positive. Even if the person has a malicious intent, or their credentials aren’t that good, there may be a grain of truth in there somewhere. The key is to not take it so personally (which is A LOT easier said then done).

Somebody Dec 19 2010

On the last point

Well. That the ideal situation for handling last point, but I once met a client who is clearly in the wrong and insist he is right & when I try to encourage him to help me further in hope that they come to their own realisation, by showing them the pros & cons of their approach. However his ego grew and begin believing everything he said was right and think that I’m are incompetent.

In the end he replaced me with another irreponsible developer who is willing to do those things. (he wanted the whole website to be in image because he values his design so highly from head to toe, not willing to sacrificing a single tiny element. He is a print designer starting up an online shop).


Sammy Dec 20 2010

Great article, just for me. I’m just starting to learn web design, and I hear a lot of criticism.

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