Handling Criticism at Work: How to Respond Positively to Negative Feedback

Negative feedback at work can be a tough pill to swallow, whether it comes in the form of a less-than-satisfactory performance review, an offhand comment from a supervisor, or a complaint from a customer. But it’s what you do with that feedback in the long term that makes a difference. You can respond positively to negative feedback and ensure it makes you a stronger professional. Here’s how.


Don’t react impulsively

Sometimes your best course of action is to do nothing in the short term. If you’re taken aback by negative feedback, do your best to keep your cool and not respond immediately. If you need to excuse yourself from a situation, ask your supervisor if you can take some time to ponder the feedback and reconvene once you’ve had a chance to regroup. The worst thing you can do is rush to judgment—either judgment of yourself or of the feedback-giver—and say something you soon regret.
Consider the source

As you evaluate negative feedback, do your best to put yourself in the giver’s shoes. Can you see where they were coming from? If the criticism seems to be coming from left field, consider whether your supervisor was simply having an off day and may have reacted poorly due to an unrelated circumstance. If the feedback is more formalized, such as in a performance review, ask yourself whether you were ignoring more casual warnings.

Respond at the right time

When you revisit the feedback with your supervisor, make sure it’s a good time to do so. You don’t want to catch your boss as they’re running out the door to another meeting or knee-deep in putting out the latest office fire. Request to meet with your supervisor with a simple message: “I’ve had some time to consider the feedback you’ve shared, and I’d like to make sure I’m on the same page with you about the path forward.” This approach is positive and solutions-oriented. You want to approach the situation from an offensive rather than a defensive position.

Summarize the feedback

As you meet with your supervisor, try using “I” language and asking questions to confirm your understanding of the criticism, e.g.: “What I hear you saying is that I should do a more thorough analysis of our social media metrics on a monthly and quarterly basis. Am I understanding correctly?” You can’t fix a situation if you don’t know what needs fixing.

Ask for clarity and guidance

If you’ve been directed to take corrective action, ask your supervisor some clarifying questions to make sure you know what success looks like in their eyes. For example, ask what metrics they would like to see in the report, if they have a sample of a more successful work product, or if there are professional development resources you can consult.

As you have this conversation, work hard not to get defensive about your previous work product. It can be difficult to do, but always strive to remember that it’s just business. You may not understand everything impacting your supervisor’s viewpoint.

Look for more opportunities to receive feedback

In the long term, the only way to get better at receiving feedback is to receive it more frequently. If managers are doing their jobs correctly, the contents of a performance review should not be a surprise. If you need to redo a project, ask for a check-in or two with your boss before the final due date. If your performance review is less than stellar, suggest having less-structured conversations about your goals on a monthly or quarterly basis. Conversations about performance are easier to have when they aren’t tied to an annual rating or an imminent pay increase.

Receiving negative feedback stings, but it’s often these moments that prove the most beneficial in the long run. If you can take the time you need to process, you’ll often find that the criticism truly is constructive.

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