How to Respond Effectively to Negative Feedback

A Rose by Any Other Name

Let’s start with a few fundamental truths about work:

#1: No one bats 1,000 in their career. Whatever your field, you’ll make more mistakes small and large than you can ever count.

#2: Assuming you have managers, some of these shortcomings will be pointed out to you by them in the form of “feedback.”

#3: Not all feedback is positive.

Whether we label them as “opportunities for improvement,” “growth areas” or any other upbeat euphemism, feedback you get about things you can do better belongs under the header of negative feedback. It may not be delivered harshly, but feedback is either be about what you did well or what you can do better – i.e. positive or negative. Both help you to chart a path in your career and get better in your chosen field, although negative feedback usually entails more self-examination and reflection in order to adapt your behavior. For obvious reasons, people are more inclined to debate the negative feedback than the positive when they disagree with it. And while everyone should be an active participant in a review of their performance, but I would also caution that not all ways of doing so are equally effective.

I remember getting lots of advice on my first day in orientation at my first job after college, but one thing that stuck out to me among everything else was the directive “Run toward feedback!” My new company stressed this point several times throughout the first few days. It sounds reasonable on the surface: successful people are eager for guidance on how to be more effective. But over time, I realized that just “running to feedback” doesn’t tell you what to do after you get it. And logically speaking, since everybody makes mistakes, then some of the feedback others give you must also be mistaken. Blindly following mistaken feedback would then also be a mistake (albeit one for which you have some cover as a new hire). There wasn’t anything in the onboarding packet about how to respond to feedback, much less what to do when you disagree with it. It almost implies that you should follow 100% of the feedback you get, which I think most people are bright enough not to do. But disagreeing with your superiors can be intimidating, and like Michael Scott driving into the lake we are all prone to following dubious advice even when we disagree.

Flavors of Negative Feedback

If only orientation programs told new hires how to disagree with their superiors effectively. I have yet to hear about that being covered in a new hire onboarding session, so I decided to dissect the basic types of negative feedback and how to respond to them most effectively. In each quadrant, I’ve added a couple of examples of the topics you’ll typically find there. I’m not feeling visually creative right now though, so you don’t get a fancy consulting chart this time:

At its most basic, feedback can either be directed at you as an employee or your work, and the person delivering the feedback may or may not be open to discussion on the topic. It usually isn’t too hard to tell whether or not someone is open to debate their feedback. Comments like, “You need to pick up the pace,” or “This deliverable isn’t client-ready,” are not usually invitations to debate the point no matter how much you might disagree at the time. At the far other end of the spectrum, mentoring conversations, performance reviews, and goal-setting discussions can only be productive if they involve a give-and-take between both parties. In between are the gray areas in which the right way to respond depends on the particular circumstances of the situation.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Responding to Negative Feedback

Assuming you’ve picked the right time to respond, there are a few questions to ask yourself any time you receive negative feedback (er, I mean “growth opportunities”) from your manager. By first pausing to consider these points, you’ll be in better position to have a productive conversation and get to the outcome you want. Naturally, the first thing to recognize first is whether you agree or disagree with the assessment.

When You Disagree with the Feedback:

Before your debate muscles reflexively kick in, pause and ask yourself these two questions before you respond to negative feedback with which you disagree:

1.       Does the feedback giver have the complete picture? Usually when it comes to your own work, you are the authority on it and understand best why you made the decisions you did. Some of your choices might seem questionable from a distance until you explain the context and tradeoffs behind them. Sometimes it can be more personal, and you need to make an effort to de-personalize the situation before responding. A while back, I received some delicately worded feedback about my availability and presence at the office. I was still pretty irritated by the comment, since my wife and I had just had our first child and I was doing the balancing act all working parents do. But I cooled off and realized they had probably just forgotten that I took no paternity leave so that I could flex time more often. Reminding them was all it took. The key is, no matter the situation, back up your statements with real context and facts. All things being equal, people tend to prefer their own opinions to yours.

2.       Has the feedback been consistent? Without meaning to, people give inconsistent feedback all the time. The more off-the-cuff the remark, the higher the odds of it contradicting something else that you’ve heard. Remember that people usually don’t realize when they are doing this, and that their positions can change significantly for good reasons. Still, it’s incumbent upon you to point out to them when you’ve gotten conflicting messages. I’ve had this happen to me when I began reporting to a new manager mid-review cycle, and I’ve had it happen when the same manager was inconsistent from one period to the next. This can be frustrating, so the best thing that you can do is ask why your managers explain why they’re changing course – and sometimes remind them that they’re doing so.

When You Agree with the Feedback:

Congrats, that’s mighty big of you. If you agree on an area in which you or your work could stand improvement, there are two other questions toward which you should quickly pivot:

1.       Is now the time to ask for resources? Negative feedback can provide you with a golden opportunity to ask for things and get them, though people often miss the window. For example, say your manager points out a skill area that he or she would like to see you develop. If you agree, that may be the right time to put together a business case for having the company sponsor you to take a class or get a certification. I’ve written before about all the incredible resources available for learning while working full time, if you’re looking for ideas. And if external training isn’t the solution, it may be contributing to another project or getting some other new kind of exposure within the company to aid in your personal development. Maybe you just need time. The point is that you’re all on the same team, and you might be surprised at how willing your organization is to help you. 

2.       What’s the next checkpoint? Ok, you agree with the feedback. What now? How can you prove that you’re making progress? Schedule another meeting, another product demo, another review session…something else? This gets harder as the feedback becomes more abstract. If you receive a “needs improvement” on something like communication skills for example, that can be a hard thing to prove you’ve gotten better at. Think hard about how you can show progress, and proactively be the one who recommends the next steps. You might as well take ownership of the conversation when you’re talking about where you need to improve.

How have you dealt with negative feedback before? Would love to hear your story in the comments, or drop me a line –