Job interview question and answer: How do you handle criticism?

A woman not handling criticism too well
Hugo Maes |

This might seem like a tricky one because it boils down to either admitting that you are a mere mortal who has flaws and can be criticised, or claiming that 'criticism' simply isn't in your vocabulary (unless you're the one giving it out) – at the risk of appearing arrogant and lacking in self-awareness and humility.

However, this tricky interview question is a fairly straightforward one to navigate if you're clever about it, and it is possible to answer without perjuring yourself.

'I try to see criticism as an opportunity to improve my work'

Constructive criticism is an important part of professional growth, and this is a good chance to show your employer you are striving to be the best and are open to improvement. Even though receiving criticism is going to feel lousy, show the interviewer that you are happy to put your ego to one side, and that you listen to and act upon feedback and advice. If you don't use criticism as an agent for change when it happens, then those vicious teeth of criticism will just keep biting and biting.

'I decide whether the criticism is valid or not'

Criticism isn't necessarily a synonym for the cold hard truth. When you come up against a less-than-rave review about your work, judge it on its own merits. After weighing up the evidence, you may decide that you are actually making the correct decision. Criticism can spring from a person's doubt about your abilities, jealousy of your success or pure vindictiveness – so be strong and confident in your abilities. Sometimes the most successful people are the ones who go against the grain and defy public opinion.

'It depends on whether the criticism is from a colleague or a client'

It's important to make this distinction, since handling criticism and carrying out effective damage control could be a core component of the job on offer.

If you are going for a job as a waiter, the interviewer wants to know how you would handle a cranky customer, or if you are an airline check-in person, how you would diffuse the situation if flights were delayed.

Criticism from a client is a completely different kettle of fish to that from a colleague, since it is likely to be more professional than personal. Your potential employer won't be too excited at the thought of you arching your back at the gall of a customer lodging a legitimate complaint.

Criticism from the boss, of course, should never be dismissed if you take your job seriously and want to continually improve and progress.

Give an example

Interviewers love real-life examples because they show that your answer is based on the person you are, rather than a person you have created in order to blitz the interview. Make sure the example illustrates the answers above – that you have viewed the criticism objectively, have taken ownership of the problem and have used it to improve your work. If you are in a leadership position, you will need to show that you are responsive to criticism by calling a meeting to discuss feedback and work towards solutions.

The dos and don'ts of hearing what you don't want to hear:

  • Do listen objectively
  • Do ask for specifics
  • Do get a second opinion and do your own research
  • Do take ownership and responsibility
  • Do take feedback into consideration
  • Do learn from it
  • Don't ignore the criticism
  • Don't get defensive, angry or rude
  • Don't make excuses
  • Don't dwell on the error

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