Negative Feedback 101

October 17, 2019
5 Min Read
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Throughout your career, feedback is necessary to highlight your hits and redirect your misses. Nobody wants to be criticized at work. However, when you handle and respond to feedback with an open mind, even negative feedback can become an invaluable way for you to identify your blind spots and areas for improvement. It’s not whether ‘if you will ever get negative feedback’ in your career, but more like ‘how do you handle negative feedback’ when you get them.

Feedback is a vital component of professional growth when it is applied constructively. Your career can advance significantly if you apply the directives and suggestions of your peers to improve your work. Despite the multiple upsides of receiving peer-to-peer feedback, even constructive feedback sting if you are very thin-skinned or believe that you contributed your best efforts. Below are some recommendations for handling negative feedback before your next performance review or when you peers share them with you.

Listen Without Framing Your Response

It can be challenging to hear someone point out your flaws. It’s natural to want to correct their skewed view of a situation or clarify a muddled point. But instead of listening, you’re waiting to speak. This is counterproductive for the results you hope to achieve. Rather than planning your next response, try to only listen the next time before responding to feedback.

Keep Your Emotions in Check
Even constructive criticism can be taken harshly, especially if you have reasons to doubt the giver’s intentions. It’s possible that someone on your team has an axe to grind with you over another issue entirely. Regardless, don’t let your emotions dictate the way you respond to feedback.

Hit the Pause Button
Don’t respond to feedback immediately after hearing constructive criticism from a peer or team member. If you are speaking face-to-face, it is completely acceptable to pause a few moments to reflect on what was said. This also gives you the opportunity to frame your response appropriately. You might want to thank the giver for their input and ask for a little time to absorb their feedback before responding to feedback.

This accomplishes two goals. One, it allows you to compose yourself and address the matter at a later time when you are more calm. And two, it shows the giver that you are taking their observations and feedback seriously.

How do you respond to feedback? If the negative feedback is in an email or other written format, let it marinate in your inbox or for a bit before you respond to feedback. Return to it the following day and re-read the feedback this time with a clear head and an open mind. As you review the constructive feedback for a second or even third time, you might be surprised to see its merits. Even if that is not the case, try to be as objective as possible in your self-assessment of the feedback. It’s helpful to keep in mind that no one is perfect. Everyone can improve their performance in some way.

Don’t Get Defensive
You might have 10 different reasons for handling negative feedback the way you did. However, if your peer is criticizing your performance or results, don’t immediately respond to feedback with the “buts.” Nobody wants to hear excuses. If the perception is truly skewed, you can address that respectfully. Always remember to keep an open mind.

Comprehend Your Team’s Concerns

It can be helpful to rephrase your peer feedback back to them to ensure that you understood it correctly. Let’s suppose that someone on your team shares that you lacked follow-through on some projects. What does that really mean? Did you struggle to meet deadlines or fail to notify the project manager of potential delays that could impact their project delivery? Ask your peers to get more granular and give an example of how you lacked follow-through in order to prevent the same issue from occurring again in the future.

Determine Whether the Feedback is Accurate
When receiving feedback from your peers, be aware that others may perceive your actions or progress differently than you do. This does not invalidate their opinions, however. The best constructive feedback identifies a problem or weakness, points it out and suggests a solution or alternate approach that would be more appropriate in a professional setting. If you have reviewed the feedback as objectively as you can and still find it unfounded, we encourage you to reach out to your peers and ask if they have some time to expand on the matter with you.

Separate Facts From Opinions
With negative feedback, it’s likely that you will hear both facts and opinions. Both are valid and can be true, but facts cannot be disputed. If you were late for each team meeting on a project, that’s a fact that can be verified. On the other hand, if a peer tells you that they dislike working with you and provides no context, then this is more subjective than evaluative. In this case, ask for concrete examples to help you clarify why they feel that way and what you can do to improve your working relationship.

Moving Forward
No company wants team members who are always ready to place blame. You should be self-aware enough to have a good grasp of your strengths and shortcomings. Peer feedback, especially the negative kind, should never feel like they came out of the blue. You might be someone who is always running behind schedule in other aspects of your life, but that is unacceptable in a professional setting where your peers rely on you.

If that’s the case, step up and own it. Acknowledge your peers’ constructive criticism. Then, offer concrete examples of how you will correct the problem, e.g. accounting travel time between meetings, investing in a better activity-tracking app, or leveraging your Google Calendar.

Don’t Trip All Over Your Apology
If you face negative feedback over an error that you made, it can be very easy to become flustered and embarrassed. You may even be envisioning a worst-case scenario of being fired. Try to remain calm and professional when you offer your apology and an assurance that it will never happen again. Then, if it is possible, offer a remedy for the problem and volunteer to fix it immediately. Don’t keep apologizing and referencing the incident once it has been resolved. Let it go and move forward with confidence.

Get Out of the Negative Feedback Loop
Once your team members have given you their feedback and you have processed it and responded accordingly, let it go. Otherwise, any negative critiques may continue playing on a loop in your brain and undermine your future efforts. While you should certainly employ any tips and suggestions that were offered, dwelling on your flaws is a good way to derail a promising career. Instead, focus on ways to turn what once were flaws into positive changes.

Change How You View Constructive Criticism

If you are serious about making the most of peer feedback, you must be willing to accept the validity of the feedback that your peers give you. This can be challenging because we are hardwired to fend off attacks. Even the most well-intended constructive criticism can put us on defense mode. Stop seeing peer feedback as an attack on you or your work ethic. Rather, learn to see it as a gentle nudge to improve and grow your professional muscles.

The Upside of Negative Feedback
One way to see the positivity in negative feedback is to realize that you’re able to grow from it. Knowing your blindspots and areas for improvement early on in your career will be beneficial in the long term. Learning to accept constructive criticism can also improve your relationships with your peers at work. Not only does it show that you value their feedback, but it will help cultivate radical candor a culture where everyone is personally invested in the success of their peers and is willing to challenge them directly with constructive feedback.

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