The Most Important Thing to Do When Receiving Negative Feedback

by Derek Loosvelt | June 05, 2018

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negative feedback

No one likes getting negative feedback on their work. And yet, studies show that those who ask for negative feedback perform better and are more successful than those that don't. The reason for that is they're able to quickly change (or, at least, change faster than those not getting negative feedback) the things they're not doing well and thus they improve their overall performance.

So, then, why don't more employees and managers ask for negative feedback if they're not getting it as part of their compulsory review at work?

The answer is simple: criticism hurts. It isn't easy to be told you're not perfect; no one likes to be told they've done something that isn't universally praised. In fact, even the most miniscule type of negative feedback can be crushing. And even the most successful people can be crushed by this type of criticism. Which, the good news is, can bring the not-yet-super-successful professionals some solace.

Here's Tasha Eurich, the author of Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, writing in the Harvard Business Review on her findings with respect to how best to deal with negative feedback.

As part of a research program for my new book, Insight, my team conducted dozens of interviews with people who’d made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness. These participants reported frequently seeking critical feedback that would help them improve. But they weren’t necessarily fond of the experience. One participant, a non-profit executive, quipped, “Are you kidding? I hate hearing that I’m not perfect!” We found this reassuring—even the most self-aware among us are still human. But as we dug deeper into what they did next, we saw a clear pattern. Where so many of us pressure ourselves to push past our emotions and respond right away, these highly self-aware people gave themselves days or even weeks to bounce back from difficult feedback before deciding what to do next.

Indeed, not reacting right away is the key to receiving negative feedback; it's the most important thing to remember to do. Which, of course, is no easy task. The moment you receive criticism is very difficult to handle. In that moment, your entire being typically goes into survival mode. Eurich, in her HBR piece, cites prominent UT Austin psychology professor William Swann, who says that when we're criticized and that criticism is contrary to how we see ourselves, we “suffer the severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when [we] recognize that [our] very existence is threatened.”

However, if you're able to not react in that moment and let some time pass, the pain and threat will dissipate. And then you'll be able to see the criticism for what it is: an opportunity to improve. That is, once the threat of the end of your existence has passed, and you've had some time to absorb the criticism, you'll be able to accurately determine an appropriate path forward; your decision-making ability won't be adversely affected by your emotions.

In some cases, that appropriate path might be to disregard the criticism altogether. After all, not everyone in your office might be your friend or "on your team." Your coworkers might be competing with you for a promotion, and your superiors might have their own agenda that doesn't involve being fair to you.

But that path might also be to start to look at what you might be doing wrong, or haven't done to the best of your ability, and then find a way to improve. This—the path of the very successful person—takes a lot of strength, but you'll see that once you're far away from that initial moment of receiving negative feedback, it'll be easier to admit that you're not perfect. You'll have distance from that moment of criticism, and that distance will give you clarity, perhaps such a clarity that you'll be able to look at yourself as though you're looking at someone else. Which is to say, your ego will be largely out of the way.

In order to help you not react in the moment you get negative feedback, Eurich offers a couple of tips. One is to remind yourself of all the things you're good at. You might even list them. This will help you fight against your mind telling you that you're good at nothing. Which is not what your really hear in that moment of receiving criticism but is often what your emotions hear. The second thing is to label your feelings and emotions, putting them into words. Eunuch writes, "For example, after a critical performance review, we might simply acknowledge, 'I feel blindsided and a little scared.'"

You might also find other things that work for you. For example, certain mindfulness practices can help give you the ability to restrain yourself. The point is to allow some distance between getting negative feedback and responding. You don't want to react to the feedback but act. And if you're eventually able to do this—it might take some practice—you'll be well on your way to becoming the best professional you can be.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

Tags: mindfulness | negative feedback | performance reviews | psychology | self-awareness

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