Valiant or Vindictive : New Study Offers Insight Into How Employees Respond To Criticism

Share Article

New study by sheds light on the emotional and behavioral responses of defensive vs. non-defensive employees when it comes to criticism.

Some people recognize the value of criticism, even when it’s negative. Others focus more on protecting their ego.

Defensive employees go through significant emotional upheaval when criticized, and may retaliate.

Anyone who hopes to move up the career ladder needs to be open to feedback, even if it’s negative – it’s a rite of passage.

With one-on-one performance reviews on the way out and 360 degree assessments making their way in, one thing certainly hasn’t changed when it comes to criticism and feedback at work: Not everyone can take it like a pro.

Researchers at PsychTests evaluated the emotional and behavioral responses of different employees to constructive feedback. What they discovered was that those who are defensive not only go through significant emotional upheaval when criticized, they also have a tendency to retaliate – either directly or in a passive aggressive manner - against their manager.

Collecting data from 454 employees who took their Sensitivity to Criticism Test, the researchers compared defensive and non-defensive employees’ response to negative feedback, revealing distinct differences between the two groups.

In response to negative feedback:

  •     84% of the defensive employees felt degraded (compared to 2% of the non-defensive employees).
  •     84% felt insulted (compared to 2% of the non-defensive employees).
  •     89% felt hurt (compared to 6% of non-defensive employees).
  •     85% perceived the critic as being ungrateful for all their hard work (compared to 1% of the non-defensive employees).
  •     69% felt dejected, and interpreted the criticism as confirmation of their own long-held belief that they are truly incompetent (compared to 1% of the non-defensive employees).
  •     57% viewed the criticism as unhelpful (compared to 4% of the non-defensive employees).
  •     72% perceived the criticism as being unnecessarily offensive and disparaging (compared to 2% of the non-defensive employees).

In response to negative feedback:

  •     77% of the defensive employees were less motivated to work hard (compared to 2% of non-defensive employees).
  •     62% told the critic off, whether it was a colleague or their boss (compared to 3% of non-defensive employees).
  •     48% “paid lip service” to their manager by agreeing to improve but not following through (compared to 3% of non-defensive employees).
  •     53% completely refused to accept the criticism (compared to 3% of non-defensive employees).
  •     64% argued with the critic (compared to 31% of non-defensive employees).
  •     58% retaliated by slacking off, giving the critic the “cold shoulder”, or criticizing the person in turn (compared to 7% of non-defensive employees).
  •     Only 26% actually put the suggestions and advice offered by the critic into practice (compared to 80% of non-defensive employees).

Perhaps not surprisingly, only 24% of the defensive group are satisfied with their job, compared to 62% of the non-defensive group. Moreover, at their last performance review, 36% of the group received an above average rating, 41% average, and 23% below average, compared to 75%, 23%, and 2% respectively for the non-defensive group.

Researchers at PsychTests also discovered that defensive employees’ semblance of negativity wasn’t limited to performance reviews and feedback from their manager. Further investigation into the attitude and personality of the defensive group revealed a general abhorrence for anyone or any circumstance that made them feel weak or vulnerable. For example:

  •     89% of the defensive group dislikes being told what to do and how to do it.
  •     71% are uncomfortable admitting when they’re wrong.
  •     64% have a cynical view of humanity, and view most people as being cut-throat and willing to do anything to put someone down.
  •     77% believe that talking about their faults will make them vulnerable to rejection or mockery.

And compared to nearly all of the members of the non-defensive group (97%), only 58% of the defensive employees believe that improving on their weaknesses is worth the effort.

“Criticism is part and parcel of nearly all jobs, but anyone who hopes to move up the career ladder needs to be open to feedback, even if it’s negative – it’s a rite of passage,” explains Dr. Jerabek, president of PsychTests. “Employees who are unable to take criticism not only limit their potential for advancing their knowledge and skills, they also increase their chances of repeating the same mistakes and failures over and over because they refuse to change the way they work. This isn’t to say that all criticism is constructive and should be viewed as such; some colleagues, customers, and even managers, can be unnecessarily harsh. What people need to do is get to the core of the lesson behind the criticism, as there may be a grain of truth to it. Essentially, ignore the means but examine the intention: Rather than asking, ‘How could he/she say such a thing’, ask ‘Is there a kernel of truth behind the criticism, and what can I do to improve?’”

“Although managers can’t control per se how their employees respond to criticism, they can strive to improve the delivery of their feedback. That’s what makes 360 assessments so valuable: Employees will be receiving feedback not only from their manager, but also their peers and customers. So while they may be able to dismiss a criticism if it’s offered by one person, when it’s corroborated by others, it might open their eyes.”

How well do you take criticism? Check out:

Professional users of this test can request a free demo for SCRT - R (Sensitivity to Criticism Test - Revised) or any other assessments from ARCH Profile’s extensive battery:

To learn more about psychological testing, download this free eBook:

About is a subsidiary of PsychTests AIM Inc. is a site that creates an interactive venue for self-exploration with a healthy dose of fun. The site offers a full range of professional-quality, scientifically validated psychological assessments that empower people to grow and reach their real potential through insightful feedback and detailed, custom-tailored analysis.

PsychTests AIM Inc. originally appeared on the internet scene in 1996. Since its inception, it has become a pre-eminent provider of psychological assessment products and services to human resource personnel, therapists, academics, researchers and a host of other professionals around the world. PsychTests AIM Inc. staff is comprised of a dedicated team of psychologists, test developers, researchers, statisticians, writers, and artificial intelligence experts (see The company’s research division, Plumeus Inc., is supported in part by Research and Development Tax Credit awarded by Industry Canada.

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Ilona Jerabek, PhD
PsychTests AIM Inc.
+1 514-745-3189 Ext: 112
Email >
since: 10/2012
Follow >
since: 10/2009
Like >
Follow us on
Visit website