Boss Calling You Out at Work? Here’s How to Learn from the Criticism

Kellie Hanna, CPRW By Kellie Hanna, CPRW, Career Advice Expert Last Updated: May 25, 2023
Businesswoman having a meeting with a man at an office

You want to excel at your job. Everyone does. When you get something wrong, you never do so on purpose, and each morning when you start the day, you have every intention of making your customers happy and your boss proud.

But as entry-level employees usually discover within the first few years of working life, there’s a huge gap between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it. And when bosses hand out criticism and corrections, the words they use and the instructions they provide aren’t always crystal clear. So in order to smooth out the bumpy road to growth and excellence at work, we present the following: a simple translation guide to your boss’s confusing criticism.

Scenario 1: Asking for help

You just learned how to send invoices to your company’s clients. With confidence, you create an invoice as instructed, and off it goes. Later, your boss approaches with an irritated expression and tells you that you did something wrong. For this specific client, a special invoice is required, since they receive different services than all the others. You explain that you didn’t know this, and your boss says with exasperation, “If you don’t know something, just ASK me. Next time, just ask.” Then he huffs off, leaving you feeling chagrined and confused. How can you ask ahead of time when you don’t know there’s even a question at hand?

Answer: You can’t. But here’s what you CAN do: Make a mental note that this issue—whatever it may entail—matters to your boss. It’s not small. Incorrect invoices confuse the accounting department, delay payments, and embarrass your boss in front of clients. So add invoicing to the list of tasks that may require special care and caution in the future. Then move on, and don’t take this exasperated response personally.

Scenario 2: Taking responsibility

There’s a wilted potted plant in the cubicle aisle near your desk. Several people have commented on it as they’ve walked past, but you’ve barely noticed, since the plant isn’t yours and you have a full schedule of work on your plate. To your surprise, your boss later uses this as an example while criticizing your performance. “You need to start taking responsibility for things,” she says. “Like that plant. You didn’t take responsibility for it, and it died.” What?

Answer: Your boss chose a poor example, because she’s a human being and she isn’t perfect. But she was trying to tell you this: not every task on your plate will be clearly included in your job description. Look around you and take some personal initiative in support of the larger, shared goals that keep the workplace functioning and the company running.

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Scenario 3: Making excuses

As you started your car this morning, the engine died and you had to walk to the station and wait for the bus instead. Your boss scolds you for being late, and you try to explain what happened. “Stop making excuses!” he tells you. What does this mean?

Answer: When you try your best and don’t get perfect results (in other words, when you fail), you don’t have to explain the entire story, especially to those who haven’t asked. Explaining what you intended, what went wrong, what you learned, and so on, and so on, can make it sound as if you’re begging for forgiveness that you haven’t earned. Keep the details and the drama to yourself. Just accept that you goofed, admit it, and move on.
—For more on how to recover from setbacks and improve your performance in the workplace, explore the career development tools at MyPerfectResume.

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