Maybe your staff can handle criticism, but are they learning anything?

How well do you handle criticism?

I ask because in Poynter’s new report, “Core Skills for the Future of Journalism,” no multimedia skill received as many votes from professionals, academics, students and independent journalists as this one:

“Handle Criticism Well.”

Must be pretty important, eh?

Permit me to suggest why many respondents rated this “skill’ in the top one-third of their survey. At a time when most organizations are under-resourced and overextended, many managers would rather deal with an outbreak of head lice than with staffers who respond to criticism with anything short of compliance.

That’s what I often hear from newsroom managers, and I empathize with their challenges. But let me also suggest that staffers who roll over when critiqued are not the staffers you want aggressively pursuing journalism, often against great odds, in your community.

Instead, I think what you want are staffers with this skill:

“Open to Learning.”

The difference is significant — and has implications both for the staffer who is receiving, as well as for the manager who’s delivering.

What we’re really talking about here is the importance of effective feedback in a journalist's development. That’s why “Handle Criticism Well” gives me pause, because it places all of the emphasis on what’s not working. Yes, we all need to learn how to receive and deal with negative feedback; but our feedback diet also needs healthy portions of what’s going well.

Being “Open to Learning” avails me of the entire spectrum of feedback in my quest to become a better reporter, editor, producer, writer, videographer, journalist. Being open to learning introduces me to new skills and tools to tell better stories and deliver them with more impact.

And if my manager and I both have an openness to learning, we can master new skills together — a much better relationship than one in which you give, and I handle, criticism.

As I said, the difference between “Handle Criticism Well” and “Open to Learning” has implications for managers and their staffs. Let me offer both groups a few suggestions:

Managers: First, let’s be clear about your goal. You want your staff to improve every day. You want them to produce journalism that makes your news report indispensable for your community. And for all of that to happen, you need a relationship that allows an ongoing dialogue with each member of your staff about the quality of their work.

So keep these things in mind:

  • Let me know you’re on my side. If I know you’re working in my best interests, I’m much more likely to take your observations to heart. How do you demonstrate that? Ask me about my ambitions, and help me assess what I need to do to achieve them. Ask me what about my job I like most, and feed me opportunities — when it’s possible — to do those things. Ask me for my reaction to the feedback you’ve given me, and respond. Ask how you can help me.
  • Give me specifics. Whether your feedback for me is positive or negative, cite specific examples. When you say, “This story doesn’t work for me,” I don’t know what to do with that. When you say, “this story moves slowly, perhaps because you use so many passive verbs,” I can go back to my story and make changes. (Similarly, when you tell me my photo had great impact because of the way I framed the subject, I can replicate that strategy in the future.)
  • If all I hear from you is criticism, I stop listening. This is not to suggest that you “balance” every negative with a positive. That rarely works because as soon as you say something negative, I forget the positive you began our conversation with. Just be on the lookout for what I do well. If I know I’m just as likely to hear from you when I succeed as when I fall short, I’m more open to your ideas. And that’s the goal, right? You want me to embrace — or at least seriously consider — your ideas.
  • Celebrate my improvement. Tell me when you notice that I tried something you suggested. Tell me that my leads are sharper, that I’m making more effective use of quotes, that my pacing is improved. And remember, be specific.

Staff: Your goal also is to improve every day. You want to produce journalism that your audience remembers and acts upon. You want to develop skills that will give you new opportunities both now and in the future. And to do all this, you need to be open to learning from all of the sources available to you.

So keep these things in mind:

  • Listen (even when it hurts). If you’re fortunate, your manager will give you a useful mix of positive and negative feedback — well-intentioned, specific and actionable. If, on the other hand, your manager’s idea of feedback is a daily dose of criticism, try not to shut down. Be open to the possibility that criticism — no matter how harshly it’s delivered — might help you improve something about your work.
  • Ask questions. Whether the feedback you receive is positive or negative, explore it. Ask your manager to be more specific, to cite examples, to suggest alternatives. Keep the conversation going until you have a clear understanding of what your manager is telling you — and an idea of how you will address the issue in the future.
  • Try to keep ownership. Managers often take their staff’s work and “fix” it. They finish editing and then tell you what they believed was wrong. If that is happening to you, ask your manager if you can get a critique before the editing occurs and try to improve the work yourself. (You will increase your chances of getting this opportunity if you turn in your work on time.)
  • Volunteer to try things. Opportunities to learn new skills require us to keep our eyes open to what’s going on around us. If the newsroom is talking about a social media strategy, ask if you can get involved. If you hear talk of incorporating more multimedia into storytelling, see if you can get training and jump aboard. The point is to take control of your development and seize opportunities to learn — even if the skill is not a requirement for your current job. Remember, those who know how to do the most will have the most options.


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