how to respond to negative feedback

All too often, when people hear negative feedback at work, they respond poorly — by getting defensive or angry or not listening.

Those reactions won’t help the situation – even if the criticism is off-base. If nothing else, it’s in your best interest to hear what the other person is concerned about, and if you’re focused on defending yourself, you’ll miss out on the value of what’s being said. And if the person does happen to be right, blocking out their input means that you’ll deny yourself the chance to get better at what you do.

Instead, when someone gives you critical feedback, do the following:

1. Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input. The person might have a reasonable point, which you’ll never pick up on if you’re focused on how to defend yourself.

2. Don’t brush it off. Responding with a brusque “okay” and nothing more makes it look like you’re just interested in ending the conversation. At a minimum, say something like: “I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me.”

3. Don’t be defensive. You’re not in a courtroom, and your manager isn’t looking to you to defend yourself. She’s looking for signs that you’re hearing what she’s saying and taking it into account. For instance, look at the difference in these two responses:

Defensive: “I’m really upset to hear this! I was working on x and z, and if I had done what you were asking, those never would have been finished on time!”

Open/nondefensive: “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”

4. Use responses that indicate you’re open to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, “I didn’t realize that this has been an issue, and I’m grateful to know” can dramatically change the nature of the meeting, diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.

5. If you genuinely disagree with the criticism you’re hearing, and you’re sure it’s not just your ego getting in the way, say that. But it’s all in how you say it and what tone you use. For instance, you might say: “I hadn’t realized it was coming across that way, so I’m glad to know. From my perspective, it seems like _____.” (Fill in the blank with whatever your perspective is.)

And remember, managers who take the time to give you feedback are the ones you want to work for.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. The Right Side*

    This is actually something I remember very well from Business School – how to react to constructive criticism. I think it is harder to GIVE than it is to receive, honestly. I don’t mind and I prefer ppl to be frank and give it to me like it is – that way I can get it right next time! I think the most important thing for ppl to remember is to not take it personally! It is a business decision, not a personal stab – so use it to make yourself better!

  2. Anonymous*

    You should do the other perspective on how to give constructive criticism! I had a boss who would just make “constructive criticism” via snide comments: “Is that the final product? Even I could have done better than that!” That one was said right in front of a customer. And yes, I consider him to this day to be a bully even though I left that job many years ago. My other boss, who does his work slowly, making it pile up, told me one day I was being too slow – despite me having only been on the job, to a new industry nonetheless, for a couple of days and was still learning! Yeah, I think you need to discuss this from the manager’s point-of-view too!

    But good advice. And it doesn’t even have to be on the job; these are great words to hear in any part of our lives.

  3. Andre*

    It’s also very effective to repeat back what you’ve heard in your own words to be sure that you heard and understood the feedback correctly, and to convey that you did! Then say thanks, and take action. To really ensure that you continue to get feedback, follow up with the person later to say thanks and let them know what actions you took or what a difference it’s made.

  4. Sandrine*

    At the interview for the job I’m in, they asked me how I reacted to criticism. I replied that I listen and take it all in, because comments are usually made for a reason. They asked me how I would react if it was someone at my level, or from a supervisor.

    I said as long as the tone is polite, even if I didn’t like it (because criticisms, even constructive, can sting a bit even when you think you did well) I just listen and apply. If, however, the tone is nasty, condescending or in general just giving off bad vibes (there is a difference between “unpleasant” and “nasty” so just because I don’t like it does not mean it’s bad) . They liked that approach.

    In fact, I have to take it all in right now! My work includes “average call time” and I’m at the highest in my team. I am way over the limit but it’s generally because I try to do “too well” for customers. Thanks to the advice I got I got way better in the previous department we worked for, and am not “under surveillance” again for the new department we are in.

    Sure, it stings knowing I have to “downgrade” some of my work, but with ALL the reviews I get, I have the praise of following guidelines, very nice voice, very pleasant to listen to… I just talk “too much” .

    And guess what… The general goal is 6:40 minutes. I started the month around 10. A week after, I was around 9 (9:13 approx) , and after some new coaching today, I would have finished at 6:35 or something if it wasn’t for my last call that was over 20 minutes -_- :P .

    So, while I didn’t get ONLY negative feedback, I got enough I could have been miffed, but I just decided it would be better for my career in the long run if I appeared receptive :P .

  5. Student*

    Do you have any advice about separating legitimate “negative feedback” from inappropriate “negative feedback” in a job setting? Or, perhaps, how to shut down emotions when you’re receiving negative feedback so that you can avoid getting defensive? I had one manager who decided to give me negative feedback in front of a co-worker when we were having a conflict. Without going into gory details, the co-worker had asked me for something, I turned him down, and he tried to take it by force (unsuccessfully). The co-worker took the conflict to the manager, who decided to unload a ton of negative feedback on me unrelated to the co-worker conflict while the co-worked was present.

    I was already angry that I was getting yelled at when my co-worker was getting off free after physically attacking me, but I was trying to have a normal conversation and not get completely defensive. I certainly played a role in the conflict, and I was trying to figure out what he would’ve wanted me to do differently. It didn’t help that some of the manager’s criticisms were factually inaccurate, while others were legitimate concerns that I could’ve learned something from with decent feedback. Then my manager decided to swing the b-word at me I completely lost any grip I had on my emotions. I admit that I cried in front of him (and the co-worker who was still sitting there complaining about me). Frankly, I was pretty scared at that point that they didn’t consider my concerns about the attack to be a legitimate complaint, and that my boss thought so little of me when I had, up until this point, thought he was an amazing person. I just wanted to get away to someplace that felt safe at that point.

    I really got caught up in the emotions and lost any chance I ever had to learn from the legitimate bits of criticism. I also lost any chance to have a normal working relationship with either that manager or the co-worker ever again. How do I shut that down when I’m in a volatile situation? How do I separate very personal insults (like the b-word) from legitimate business concerns so that I’m not being quite as defensive?

    1. fposte*

      It’s always going to be tough to be cool, calm, and collected when you’re being called names. This sounds like a situation that in general got too heated to be useful. Can you followup with the manager, by email or in person, and reflect back on what you saw as the work issues identified in the meeting to get that confirmed?

      In general, I’d say that if you have an issue with a co-worker, then you meet with your manager about that issue, rather than making it a “But he…” counterargument while you’re getting feedback. I can’t tell from your description, however, whether this was a big mutual problem (if a co-worker wants your stapler, that’s not worth physically fighting about so you let her have it), whether your co-worker behaved inappropriately but not illegally (trying to snatch something out of your hand), or whether you should have called the police, or some mix of the above. But if the situation is dangerous, you need to report that immediately.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreed. I would also add that if you can feel yourself getting emotional, it’s okay to say, “I really want to hear your feedback on this, but I can tell that I’m getting flustered right now and it’s getting in the way of me really being able to take in what you’re saying. Would you give me some time to calm myself and then we can reconvene later on today?”

    2. Joey*

      I’ve had this happen personally and here’s what I did:
      1. Expect it. The first few times it’s harder to stay in control. But if you tell yourself this person gets irrational, loses control and hits below the belt it wont sting so bad.
      2. Don’t engage. Im not saying don’t talk but don’t reciprocate the mudslinging.
      3. Stick to the evidence/ facts. Don’t make judgements.
      4. Keep it in perspective. There are more important things than proving a point, proving you’re right or getting the last word in.
      5. People that don’t respect you enough to speak to you professionally don’t deserve to be taken very seriously. Concentrate on extracting the bits and pieces of real feedback and discard the rest.

    3. A Bug!*

      I wouldn’t say that’s an issue with how you handle criticism. You were placed in a high-stress situation where your manager was behaving inappropriately and apparently being pretty aggressive. I don’t blame you for your reaction and I’m sorry you had such an experience. Honestly, with a person delivering criticism in that manner, you’re well within your rights to ignore the rest of what he has to say until he can express it in a less offensive way.

      Still, there are lots of ways to learn how to deal with strong emotions so you can be better in control the next time you’re being provoked. Therapy, meditation, and roleplay are three options that come to mind (two of which are free!). It’s not easy, but with time you may be able to shift your default response to hurtful comments from crying to “That’s a pretty hurtful/inappropriate thing to say; why would you say something like that?”

      In your case, I’m pretty much at a loss for words at how terrible your manager was. I’d be inclined to declare the situation unsalvageable , but I guess if you’d kept an even head you might have said “I don’t think it’s appropriate to be discussing my performance in front of a coworker. Can we please first resolve this pressing issue with Coworker and then set up a time to discuss my own performance?”

    4. Anonymous*

      To be honest, I think you found out your true working relationship with your boss when he called you the b-word. I am by no means saying you deserved it, but for whatever reason, he had a lot of pent up anger for some reason. Perhaps he had been brainwashed by the other coworker who quite obviously doesn’t respect you. But to come out with a tirade over your work – with quite a few inaccuracies – and then just resort to nasty name calling doesn’t seem like he just thought of it on the spot.

      You can try to speak with him to find out what happened or start looking for another place to work. But I honestly believe something was brewing before the major conflict with your coworker.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d like to know more about how the b-word was used. There’s a difference between “you’re a bitch” and “you really can’t be bitchy like that to customers.” I’m not saying the latter is appropriate, but it’s way less concerning than the first example.

        1. Anonymous*

          That could be, but I took as the former because of that commenter’s use of “[swung] the b-word at me.” Maybe she’ll let us know.

        2. Student*

          When he called me the b-word, it was part of a stream of similar names. B-word, control freak, uppity, a complaint that I was dominating a job that I was actually not performing at all. It went on well past the point where I was listening, so I don’t remember the other specifics, just that they also made me very mad and upset at the time.

          The insult stream from the manager was part of an effort to explain to me how I was inferior to the co-worker that I had an altercation with and that I was supposed to obey the co-worker without question and complaint. This was news to me! The co-worker was a new hire of a couple months, and I’d been training him for the last few weeks at the manager’s request. It was against the workplace rules for this guy to be in charge of me. The manager had never said anything of the sort to me previously. The co-worker himself hadn’t brought this up until he started flipping out at me during the altercation, and I frankly thought he was bluffing to try to get his way. I was still calm at that point, and I responded by telling him that he wasn’t my boss, and I expect him to treat me with a certain level of mutual respect, specifically not to get physical at me or yell at me.

          Despite my efforts to talk about the entire incident, my “insubordination” to this co-worker was the focus of the discussion with management. The boss brought up other stuff randomly in the course of the discussion as examples of why I’m a bad worker, but they were overwhelmingly stuff he had never discussed with me before, things that predated this co-worker’s hiring, and many were demonstrably false. I’m sure that there were genuine issues in there, but I missed all of them because I was completely on the defensive. There was also zero discussion of whether the co-worker was at fault in any respect for the altercation, or whether obeying him was rational or practical.

          If it helps to have some context about the altercation, the co-worker that I had a conflict with was watching me try to fix some electronics. He freely admitted that he had no idea what the electronics were for or what I was doing. Nevertheless, he felt I was taking too long and told me I should give the electronics to him and tell him how to fix it, so it would go faster. I told him no, and offered him alternative chances to learn the electronics on a different day. Part of why I said no was because the electronics are very dangerous (more dangerous than sticking your finger in an electric socket, less dangerous than grabbing a downed power line) and I’m not going to hand something dangerous to a newbie without making absolutely certain he knew what he was doing, but I must admit I was also a bit insulted with how he was talking to me and very tired because I’d already worked for 12 hours that day (he was also there for a long time, hence his desire that I hurry).

          At this point, the co-worker started yelling and tried to rip the dangerous electronics out of my lap. It’s a bit like having someone wrestle over a knife in your lap – one wrong move and either or both of you might get injured, but with the added bonus that the electronics might break too. I was also extremely angry about having his hands in my LAP and having him throw (from my perspective) a temper tantrum like a toddler but with the body of a guy much larger than me. I don’t care what your intentions are, touching in the crotch region is off-limits for co-workers. I didn’t lay a finger on him, but I yelled, once, “NO,” and that snapped him out of it enough for him to leave to go complain to the manager. The discussion with management came around hour 14 or so of work that day because the manager was too busy to talk to us right away, which really didn’t improve matters for anyone.

          My boss, before he resorted to name-calling, told me that I should’ve done as this co-worker said. He didn’t really seem to register anything I said at all, and even stated that he was ignoring me at one point. He didn’t seem to understand that it was dangerous, or that I had no clue that this co-worker was apparently also my manager, or that I regard physical altercations with a co-worker (or a manager, or anyone) as completely unacceptable behavior at a job. The manager said specifically that, while it was less than ideal that my co-worker had gotten physical with me, it was a completely understandable response because my disobedience was worse, and my disobedience had made him too angry to control himself! That was pretty scary to me, since it’s basically a management endorsement of violence against me. I was incoherent, crying, and left as fast as I could at this point.

          I made sure that the upcoming project would go as smoothly as possible and left as soon as it was completed (about two weeks later). I was angry and scared and couldn’t do a good job for them any more. I would’ve liked to understand better why the manager was so angry with me. It came out of nowhere for me, and I had really thought the manager was an amazing person and I wanted him to like the work I did. I wanted him to adopt a different viewpoint on violence in the workplace, too, for his own professional sake and the sake of my other co-workers. I wanted to know if I had genuinely missed some cue that this new guy was supposed to be in charge of me, so that I could’ve sorted that mess out earlier. There was so much I wanted to learn about from that whole incident, but instead everything went so far south that I didn’t see any way to salvage it at all and just found a different job.

          I always felt that, maybe if I hadn’t started crying and caved on all the important concerns just to escape the discussion, it would’ve turned out better for everyone. I’ll definitely take AAM’s suggestion in the future to just ask for a time-out when I can’t control my emotions any more. The breathing exercises that one commenter mentioned seem like a good way to keep my cool, too, if I can’t leave. That really would’ve given me a chance to re-examine the issue, focus on the important bits, concede any minor issues, and maybe figure out what the boss actually wanted out of me.

          1. Anonymous_J*

            I am oh-so-glad you got out of there! It sounds to me like it would not have come out in your favor or benefitted you in any way to stay there, regardless of how good your intentions were.

            You were bullied, plain and simple. This isn’t a matter of hearing feedback and not liking it: They ganged up on you, and guessing from the fact that you were called a “b-word,” I would say it was BECAUSE you are a woman.

            I hope that you are doing something great now! Good luck to you!

    5. Natalie*

      If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think you’re responsible for losing your normal working relationship with this manager or co-worker. You were never going to have a normal working relationship with someone who would attempt to take something from you by force or include random name calling in feedback.

      When you are faced with situations like this in the future, it might be helpful to focus on your breathing and keep it slow, deep, and even. Our brains can react to things like quick, shallow breathing with panic, even if there’s nothing to panic about (try it sometime), so deliberately breathing like you are in a calm state of mind will help you retain a calm state of mind. Also, it gives you something unemotional to focus on. When you speak, keep your voice low (in tone), normal volume, and even. It might also help to practice some calm, disengaging sentences that you can pull out when necessary.

    6. Anonymous*

      If you can simply say ok and walk away. Honestly when someone is attacking you and that’s what it sounds like here it can be really hard to say much of anything coherent. Two letters and walk away. Go and get out. This isn’t going to improve your standing but it will prevent your standing from going down. And honestly with a boss who attacks you and calls you names in front of a coworker chances are good he doesn’t think much of you to begin with (sorry). Walk away. Process thru the information in your own way. Discard things that were heated. If you yell something it’s pretty much not relevant. If you want to try to make this work I’d go back to your boss at a later date, bolster yourself up before hand, and say something like “I know that you have some feedback for me and I’d really like to hear it from you in a different way, can we sit down and go over some specific situations and how you think I should have handled them differently?” Ask for specifics. Listen. Walk away. And yes if you can try to brush those insulting things off that is good but it doesn’t always work that way so really walking away can be the best thing to do and coming back later when you are ready to hear it and he isn’t being quite as much of a jerk is good.

    7. Jen*

      I would also report that incident to the HR dept. Name-calling and physical force in a dispute are completely unprofessional, and it sounds like an intermediary would have been helpful. Plus, I just would want that documented.

      If you’re not a situation where you feel like you can report that behavior to someone higher on the food-chain, I would smile and nod while updating your resume asap. A situation like that is unlikely to improve.

  6. Anonymous*

    I wish I could email this to one of my staff without looking callous ! I just had this exact situation happen yesterday after discussing some aspects of her performance that needed improving.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You know, I actually think THIS is a legitimate topic to give feedback on. As in, “When I talked to you yesterday about X, you looked angry and seemed focused on defending yourself rather than hearing what I was saying. I need to be able to give you input without you becoming upset.”

  7. ChristineH*

    Great advice Alison. For me, however, it is much easier said than done. I’ve seen this type of advice time and time again, but whenever I get criticized, my brain just automatically takes it poorly and I get upset, sometimes to the point of crying. I have issues with anxiety, so even a hint that I’ve done or said something incorrectly stings. A lot.

    I like what you suggested to “Student” above, about requesting time to cool off/think things over. I just hope I can remember to say that next time something happens!

    1. Dan*

      I’d like to echo this.

      I know what I “should” do, but my emotions boil to the surface so quickly sometimes, they’ve caught me off guard and I’ve been defensive when I really didn’t need to be.

      It’s an ongoing battle for sure…

    2. Anonymous*

      Pratice can help a lot. Try thinking of not “this is what I did wrong I’m such a screw up” but rather “this is what I can do better next time cause I’m better than that”. If you reframe it in your mind that can help.
      But pratice, even getting negative feedback in silly areas. Like invite a friend over for dinner and ask them to give you negative feedback (a very good friend) it might be as simple as the napkins weren’t folded neatly. And your instinct will be to go, seriously! I invite you over for dinner and you’re upset about the napkins!?. Instead go, huh, ok she’s right they are really messy, or nah she’s wrong they are just fine.
      If you pratice internally on things like this it will get a lot easier to deal with bigger things and such at work.

    3. Anonymous_J*

      I have this problem, too.

      I also, however, work with people who do not give any feedback between reviews. This means they save up all the bad stuff for that once-a-year meeting, and I’m blindsided.

      That is not a helpful approach.

  8. Bonnie*

    I know that for myself when I get negative feedback I don’t always hear what the other person is trying to tell me because I am preparing my defence of my actions. So when I find myself having to give negative feedback, I try to stop several times during the process to let the other person say what they need to say. I hope this lets us work through the issue together rather than have the other person feel like the received a lecture they didn’t deserve.

Comments are closed.