How to Embrace Negative Feedback

Monday, June 18, 2018
Fatou Darboe

Image Credit: GoodFood

At some point in your career, you have received feedback on your performance, be it negative or positive. But you work hard so you it’s understandable that you want nothing but the latter, positive feedback.

However, you can’t run away from negative feedback – it’s inevitable. You cannot make everyone happy: the very thing one person dislikes about you may the one thing another person loves about you.

And it is important to understand that while both negative and positive feedback can impact your career; negative feedback won’t end your career. Your unwillingness to absorb or process it well and act on it could.

So next time you hear negative feedback from your boss, colleagues or clients, embrace the feedback. It may be hard to hear but it is the next thing for you to work on in order to achieve success.

Easier said than done, we know. It can be a struggle to get to that place of acceptance. The key is to getting there lies in whether or not you’re willing to address the feedback, learn and grow from it.

If you are not willing to do that, you may need to get out now because the situation will only get worse if you continue to defend, justify, manipulate or just wait for it to pass.

And even when you get out, you need to keep in mind that whatever problems you don’t address head on in life always reappear over and over again until you learn the intended lessons.

So here is the right way to respond to negative feedback. But first, why do we really hate receiving negative feedback? Could receiving negative feedback be good for us?

Why We Hate Receiving Negative Feedback

We all have a natural negativity bias. It has been found that our brains are hardwired to react to negative stimuli faster as that was originally necessary for our survival.

Anticipating an attack triggers our body’s natural fight or flight mode, which in turn increases the amount of hormones in the bloodstream, hastening reaction time and heightening our emotions.

The experiences that initiate those reactions are engraved in our brains so that we can react to dangerous situations faster. That is the reason why we tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones. However, that negativity bias may work against us in an office setting.

Egg covered in band-aids
Image credit: Psychology Today

According to psychologist Peter Gray and management professor Neal Ashkanasy, negative feedback can create a sense of exclusion.

In hunter-gatherer societies, people were dependent on their group or tribe for survival. Because of that, constructive feedback can trigger our innate fear of exclusion from the group or team.

That is why most people don’t like hearing bad news about themselves. That critical performance review or being called out for a mistake you made can challenge your status within a team and trigger feelings of shame, helplessness and frustration.

That experience – in which your flight or flight response mode is triggered – causes a temporary loss of executive function. So if a negative performance review makes you think you’ve lost your mind, it’s probably because you actually have.

But don’t write off criticisms you receive from your boss, colleagues, family or friends. Science shows that negative feedback may actually be good for us in several ways.

Here goes.

Negative Feedback Boosts Creativity

Are you creative? Then, you should know that all creatives crave feedback. We want our work to be seen and want to know how people feel about it.

But at the same time, we hate criticism. Yet, according to science, it is that very thing we hate that helps to boost our creativity.

The pain of a harsh review can provide a temporary boost in creativity. Researchers at Columbia Business School discovered a strong link between creativity and social rejection (the type that is often brought on by negative feedback).

It sounds counterintuitive doesn’t it? Yes, but have you noticed that you are most creative when you feel most vulnerable?

In the study, a group of professionals were critiqued on their public speaking skills and then competed to see who could design the best collage. The professionals who performed the worst on their speeches ended up creating more original and colorful collages than those who received more positive feedback on their speeches.

Additionally, the after-effects of the negative feedback were that they experienced sharper inner focus and creative planning. Their disappointment and dejection was churned into determination.

Negative Feedback Can Boost Performance

Leadership firm, Zenger Folkman, conducted a survey on the effects of negative feedback on performance. They found that of 899 employees they surveyed, majority supported the idea of getting negative feedback at work.

Image credit: Harvard Business Review

Those employees also said that getting feedback on how to improve and being alerted to their shortcomings was more effective than positive feedback in boosting their performance.

72 percent thought that their performance could improve with more frequent and original feedback from managers, even if it meant receiving more negative feedback.

The survey also highlights an important point about negative feedback: experienced professionals prefer to hear it. Those professionals are not looking for reassurance at that stage of their careers, but are looking for information to enable them to fine-tune their performance and hasten their progress.

Image credit: Harvard Business Review

Young professionals on the other hand, crave affirmation through positive feedback.

Negative Feedback is Helpful

A study by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that students in advanced-level French literature classes preferred teachers who gave them corrective feedback over those who were more gentle.

In a separate study, researchers found that women who think of themselves as nail-care experts (use multiple products and visit nail salons often) were more likely to seek negative feedback about their choice of nail color and general beauty habits. They were also more likely to act on the negative feedback by paying more for manicures. And even changing nail salons.

So negative feedback can produce a positive change in behavior.

Since we tend to ignore other people’s advice, only a bit of potentially useful feedback we receive gets acted upon. However, negative feedback has an added sense of urgency that raises our self-awareness and the possibility that we can achieve something good from it.

That being said, perhaps, the best way to respond to negative feedback is to prepare for it – positively, not defensively.

The truth is that it is way too easy to prepare to give a negative response to negative feedback. And that strategy usually leaves you and the other party feeling horrible about the interaction.

Instead, you need to think about how to prepare and respond to negative feedback in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

Smiley face boxing gloves
Image credit: Psychology Today

Sure, it sounds simple, but it is much harder in practice.

Here are some strategies to help you to respond optimally to negative feedback.

The Right Way to Respond to Negative Feedback

Most successful people believe that they need to change their behavior if it is limiting their success. On the contrary, the best way to manage our weaknesses isn’t clear or set in stone. Negative feedback can at times unearth flaws or weaknesses that are tied to who we are.

An example, from Harvard Business Review, is that of Levi. Levi is a successful entrepreneur who sees himself as a good leader and a strong communicator. But his team did not share his views: they constantly rated him much lower than he rated himself in performance reviews and they gave him a low score on communication.

Levi then decided to embark on a journey to better understand the feedback. On that journey, he realized that he may not be genuinely personable, despite all his efforts to be so.

So he had a meeting with his team where he admitted that he was not the best leader and didn’t have the best communication skills. He then explained to his team that some of his behaviors were personal shortcomings and not an indication that he didn’t value them.

He asked for their help in understanding and navigating those weaknesses.

From then on, his employees became a lot more understanding and eventually got to a point where they could joke about his communication gaffes. Levi saw that as a sign that they were rooting for him, despite the fact that he wasn’t the best leader.

What does Levi’s case teach us?

That sometimes, the best response to negative feedback is to admit your flaws to yourself, then to others and set expectations of how you are likely to behave. Indeed, when we let go of what we cannot change, we can focus that energy into changing what we can.

Levi’s case also teaches us to evaluate whether the feedback we receive has any merit.

Does The Feedback Have Merit?

The first thing that many of us do when we hear or read negative feedback is to become defensive. We instinctively want to justify ourselves; and the effort, energy and time we put into that good work (at least according to us).

That reaction can make it harder to empathize with the other party.

What may make it easier is to attempt to put yourself in the shoes of the person issuing the negative feedback.

The person issuing the feedback just wants their concerns to be heard. They are not looking for conflict; they are simply disappointed. When someone is angry, you can diffuse the situation by acknowledging their experience and talking it through with them.

Just like Levi did with his team.

Be Open to Feedback

Feedback is one of the main avenues towards growth. But when we get negative feedback that signals a developmental need, it is a shock to us. (Remember that Levi was shocked to hear that he wasn’t as good of a leader or communicator as he had thought.)

That is probably because we are initially unaware of a need for improvement in the first place.

So instead of becoming defensive, you need to respond to feedback with openness and willingness. Perhaps your response, like Levi’s should be, “I need to do whatever I can in order to change that and move forward” or tell your boss or team, “I noticed that about myself, so how can I change that? Can you help me change that?”

In that way, you are owning your actions and are showing that you are ready to resolve the issue. And once you are at that point, you are in the growth phase.

Rock wrapped in red velvet ribbon
Image credit: Psychology Today

Face the Facts

When we face setbacks, whether it be in our careers or life in general, we typically tend to argue with the reality of the situation and choose to create our own narrative about our circumstances.

The narrative usually portrays us as the victim and everyone around us is out to get us.

However, arguing with the facts of the situation is a waste of time and energy as it is not the reality of the situation that is causing the stress, but our realities about it.

As the person at the center of the narrative, it is easy to read into the situation, assign a motive and make assumptions about what really happened -- something that is not rooted in reality.

What we should be doing is saving time and energy by understanding the lesson and responding in a way that will help our careers.

So, face reality and take action to quickly improve your performance and strengthen your credibility.

You can also change the narrative.

Change the Narrative

Think of negative feedback this way: it is happening to you for your higher good.

Perhaps you have lost the contract of a lifetime and you simply cannot understand why. You did everything right but it just didn’t work out. And maybe something devastating is happening in your personal life at the same time.

How about you think of it this way: you lost the contract because you need to focus on the event that is taking place in your personal life? Perhaps you were just not ready for it and it all worked out?

Treat feedback at work in the same way. You should always ask yourself to find positive reasons why the setback might be happening right now. Keep those positive reasons in mind, as well as the positive outcomes and focus on working towards achieving those outcomes.

Additionally, it is easy to take criticism as a personal attack on your character. You could however take it as a data point to integrate among all the positive feedback you’ve previously been given.

In that way, it is easier to view negative criticism as something that will help you grow professionally, especially if you are just starting out in your career.

Push for Results and Learning

As we said earlier, when you are faced with a major setback, you may instinctively be tempted to stick with your version of events and look for justifications as to why you are right and the other party is wrong.

When in that situation, ask yourself if you would rather be right or happy.

If you want to be right, you should realize that you will be giving up a major learning opportunity in order to be right. Because if you decide that you are right and the other person is wrong, you become righteous in that moment.

You will consequently seek feedback that proves that you are right and in the process, you block out major learning opportunities that could help propel you to success.

If you choose happiness, then learning will happen. You will take accountability which enables you to move from being a victim of the situation to a professional that can account for the actions and events that got you to the current situation.

And that right there is freedom.

You are put in a place where you can take responsibility, learn your lesson and gain clarity on what you can do differently. And that enables you to achieve better results in the future. Just like Levi did.

So if you can learn to accept negative feedback as helpful and act accordingly, you can hasten your professional development.

“That’s Interesting.”

5 Steps for Giving Productive Feedback
Image credit: Entrepreneur

Just as with anything you learn, you need to figure out what holds value and what doesn’t. Not every feedback you get at work will be actionable, relevant or constructive. In fact, constructive feedback is hard to come by.

So perhaps your best response to negative feedback should be “that’s interesting.”

“That’s interesting” is open and polite, not defensive. The statement does not accept or discount the criticism – it provides room for consideration.

What we mean by that is that it allows you to deliberate and gives your ego a chance to accept the feedback without feeling small.

It also gives you an opportunity to learn and grow.

Analyze the Feedback

It’s important to repeat this: just because someone has given you feedback, it doesn’t mean you have to take it. In addition to finding what holds value and what doesn’t, you need to step back and analyze where the feedback is coming from and why someone might be giving it.

Let’s say you made a mistake while giving a presentation to the executive team. Or maybe you didn’t have all the facts straight in a meeting. Get details of where you went wrong and figure out what the core issue was.

And take what’s valuable from that and leave the rest behind.

Get Details

This point is especially important if you feel that you’re being unfairly targeted. In that case, ask for examples as to what your boss or colleague may be referring to and also ask them what they would like for you to do differently.

If their points are valid or reasonable, take action and follow their advice in rectifying the situation.

If you feel their points are not valid or are unreasonable, get it in writing so you can take it to HR if the situation demands such action.

Wrapping Up

Everyone hates criticism. Be it constructive or not.

Yes, criticism is not as fun as being told that you’ve done an amazing job.

At the same time, we all need feedback and that feedback cannot always be positive. It is not fair to expect it to be and to also blame the messenger – their response to your work is as much about them as it is about you.

As we discussed above, the first thing you should do in responding to feedback that isn’t all sunshine and daisies is to embrace the fact that learning is a key component of life and work. Make it your goal to use the experience as a learning opportunity.

Indeed, successful professionals are open to new ideas and constantly strive to improve their work. So think of negative feedback as a key component of professional development.

Don’t fear it and don’t allow it to hurt you. Soldier on.