how to respond professionally to negative feedback

Ever felt caught off-guard when your boss gave you some critical feedback? If you’re like a lot of people, negative feedback can be rough to hear, and you might get defensive or upset or shut down. But those reactions, while understandable, won’t serve as you nearly as well as responding calmly and professionally – even in the face of the toughest feedback. Here’s how to do it.

1. First and foremost, get clear in your own head that feedback – especially critical feedback – is something that will help you. After all, think about what would happen if your employer never gave you feedback: You’d stagnate in your job instead of growing professionally, you’d be less likely to get better and better at what you do, and you might be totally unaware of serious issues that could impact your career progression or reputation and even in some cases get you fired. (That last one especially matters! Even if you ultimately disagree with the feedback, it’s crucial to understand your manager’s perspective so that you can make better decisions for yourself.)

In fact, the more you can train yourself to actively want feedback – to seek it out and to welcome it when it comes – the better you’re likely to do in your career, and the more people will probably like working with you.

2. Don’t react right away. Too often, people’s first instinct when hearing critical feedback is to defend themselves – to explain why their manager’s assessment is wrong or why there were extenuating circumstances, or simply to disagree. And it’s certainly possible that your manager is wrong or that special circumstances were in play – but it’s not helpful to leap straight there. If you do, you’ll make it harder for yourself to truly hear and process the feedback, and you’re more likely to come across as defensive rather than open to input. Instead, focus at first on just listening. Then…

3. Actively show that you’re open to the feedback. Giving critical feedback is hard, and many managers are nervous when they do it. The more open you show that you are to the conversation, the easier it will go for both of you – and the more likely you are to draw out additional useful information. If you simply absorb the input in silence, your manager might not have any idea what you’re thinking or whether you’re angry or upset or you disagree. Instead, try saying something like, “I really appreciate you telling me this. I didn’t realize that this was a problem, and I’m grateful that you raised it.” Note that you’re not even agreeing with the feedback here – you’re simply demonstrating that you don’t have your guard up and that you welcome the conversation. And now you’re having a discussion that’s more about collaborative problem-solving than one-way criticism.

4. Share relevant information. At this point, you might realize that you have information or perspective that your manager doesn’t, and which might impact her assessment if she knew it. It’s reasonable to mention, for example, that the reason a report was late was because you were waiting on information from someone who was out sick, or that you didn’t put as much energy into project X because the CEO told you to focus exclusively on project Y. Most managers want to know that kind of thing, and it’s fine to say, “You’re right that I didn’t put a lot of energy into project X. I had thought that project Y was a higher priority and so I was keeping my focus there. Was that the wrong call to make?”

As long as you’re actively demonstrating openness to your manager’s message (see step #3), it shouldn’t come across as defensive to share information that might change her assessment.

5. Ask for time to process the feedback if you need to. Sometimes it’s tough to absorb critical feedback on the spot, or to figure out how you want to respond. If that’s the case, it’s fine to say something like, “I really appreciate you telling me this. Would it be okay if I took some time to think about this and then circled back to you in a few days with my thoughts?” (Of course, then make sure that you really do. At that point, the onus will be on you to raise the topic again, and if you don’t, you’ll look like you’re shirking a tough conversation or not taking it seriously.)

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. erin*

    One of the great books I’ve read recently on this subject is “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” out of the Harvard Negotiation Project. It summarized a lot of what Alison listed but goes into a lot more depth. I’ve found it very useful, especially in scenarios where the emotion involved hasn’t caught up to my rational brain.

  2. Mimmy*

    Just another terrific column by Alison that I wish had existed in 2007-2008 at a job I’d struggled at. One of my problems is that, no matter how much I tell myself that I’m open to feedback, my instinctual reaction is feel upset and then start to cry or get defensive. I especially have difficulty when the feedback relates to how I interact with others.

    I think the timing of feedback can be at play too. We’ve talked here before about not waiting until the performance review to bring up issues, which I can vouch for first hand. But sometimes it can’t be helped. At the aforementioned job, I was still in my probationary period when one afternoon, my manager meets with me to discuss some concerns and hold an early performance review. This occurred one hour before I was set to leave for a long-awaited concert with my husband. I was in such a foul mood after my meeting that I almost didn’t go to the show. I’m glad I did, but ended up feeling emotional the next day. Again, my manager wouldn’t have known I was about to attend a special event.’

    So that’s my long-winded way of offering up a 6th tip: Don’t let critical feedback or a bad review ruin an upcoming event. Take that time to relax and let your mind go. The joy of having attended an event could do wonders in putting you in a better frame of mind.

    1. Ad Astra*

      I always take criticism too personally and get very defensive, even when I’m consciously trying not to. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if my past managers have been unprofessional or less than constructive in delivering the criticism. I can never tell if it’s my workplace that’s toxic, or if it’s just me.

    2. Rose of Cimarron*

      You’re not alone! I wish I’d had this on Monday when I had a very tough performance review I wasn’t expecting to be so harsh. My review took place in a tiny room (open-plan office, so the only option for privacy is a tiny closed room) and I felt defensive, trapped, and suffocating, and of course I cried. My boss and I talked again yesterday and that helped, but I did not handle it well. It was the toughest review I’ve ever had, and a lot of it was about how I interact with others, so it wasn’t really measurable things I could improve, and I felt like a little kid that nobody liked and reacted accordingly. Wrong!

  3. Amber Rose*

    Beware of managers picking a fight! My last manager would snap at me about a failure on my part, and if I said something like “We have X, Y and Z projects that are time sensitive, how would you like me to prioritize?” I’d get a huffy response to figure it out since that was my job and couldn’t I do that anymore?

    It’s important when giving criticism to follow a lot of these points too. If you go into it angry or lacking information, nothing good happens.

    1. Kristine*

      “So, what I’m hearing is, you expected me to _______ and I did/didn’t _____. ” “So, what I’m hearing is, you expect me to figure out _________ because…?” “[Name], I really need you to not snap at me. I’m hearing some real frustration on your part and I’m listening, but I cannot have you talking to me like this. Can we speak about this later?”

      1. Mimmy*

        “[Name], I really need you to not snap at me. I’m hearing some real frustration on your part and I’m listening, but I cannot have you talking to me like this. Can we speak about this later?”

        In this example, I’d be afraid that the one snapping would deny that he’s snapping. Or say something like, “Talking to you like how??”

        1. fposte*

          In general, I’d advise against saying to a manager that you “cannot have you” doing something. That’s kind a nuclear option, and if you use it for somebody merely being huffy, it’s going to hurt you a lot more than them.

          1. KathyGeiss*

            I agree. This only comes out when someone is loudly yelling and/or swearing (and depending on your work culture, yelling may be more acceptable).

          1. fposte*

            Most adults I know would get pretty ticked off if you told them “I can’t have you doing this,” though–I can’t imagine saying it to a friend or a family member. I liked what Kristine was doing with her statement generally, but I’d probably reserve it for greater solecisms and change that part of the wording.

        2. Seattle writer gal*

          My grandmother’s fav response to this type of convo was, “I’m not scolding you. I’m just telling you” with a clear implication that whatever you wee doing, you were doing it wrong.

      2. Amber Rose*

        I had a coworker try something like that. She’d asked for help and was told to figure it out on her own. She got it wrong and was yelled at, so she said, “I don’t think it’s fair to get this kind of reaction when I did X like I was told and Y to try and double check my solution.”

        My boss had a meltdown. Got super defensive, talked about how hard everything was for her, then spent the afternoon crying in her office. :/

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          Did she work for my old boss? I can totally see her doing something like this. But, most of the negative feedback I ever received from her, upon reexamination, would turn out to be either because I was following her instructions or unable to get clear guidance. Or it was just personal criticisms. (Not to say I was perfect, but she was much more interested in manipulating people and furthering her career (read: grab credit or spread blame) than actually managing her staff and department. I have received constructive criticism from other managers that was well delivered and taken to heart.)

  4. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    Any thoughts about responding to feedback that’s not in the moment?

    I had a manager throw out some negative feedback about something I’d done three months prior. It was clear it was something he was pissed about, and he’d just let it fester all that time, and then he burst out with it in the middle of an unrelated discussion. The sad thing is that it was a perceived slight that could have been easily explained away at the moment, had he brought it up at the time (I left a team meeting without excusing myself, because it had run late and I had a client call to hop on. He was insulted by the fact that I quietly exited while he was presenting something. I know, I know.)

    Anyway, I took that feedback poorly, because all I could do was focus on how he could have told me at the time instead of turning it into a Really Big Deal three months later. Thoughts?

    1. Mimmy*

      I’d say something like, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, though I wish I’d known sooner. I won’t let it happen again, but if it does, please let me know right away so that I can respond quickly.”

    2. Ad Astra*

      I had a boss who was like this. She was the primary reason I relocated to take a new position, even though I liked where I was living and didn’t totally hate the actual job. I just couldn’t deal with her.

    3. the gold digger*

      My husband’s parents complained to him a few months ago about some food I had eaten last time I was there – five years ago – that I was not supposed to have eaten. I do not know what food it was and am very curious, as there is not much in their fridge I like and Primo and I have to take our own lunch food – they don’t eat lunch so why should they provide it for guests?

      They also complained to him that a few years ago, my sister in law had eaten all the pickled herring.

      There is an entire Vault of Bad Things Our Sons’ Wives Have Done where grievances are stored tightly, aging like cheese, waiting to be retrieved at just the right moment.

      (The “Goldie is a bad-bacon eater” is one of their favorites and is hauled out once or twice a year.)

      1. TheLazyB*

        Hang on hang on. I presumed you ate bacon badly, but did you actually eat BAD bacon?

        Enquiring minds and all that. Link me if it’s a blog post. (I’m trying not to start reading new blogs but may have to just give in and accept reading yours ;) )

  5. Shannon*

    I have to disagree with the verbiage used in example four.

    “You’re right that I didn’t put a lot of energy into project X. I had thought that project Y was a higher priority and so I was keeping my focus there. Was that the wrong call to make?”

    When you put it like that, it sounds like you were using your limited knowledge about the company to make a business decision you may not be authorized to make. Instead, I would suggest, “You’re right that I didn’t put a lot of energy into X. CEO told me to focus exclusively on Y. CEO is the CEO, but, you’re my boss. How would you like me to handle direction from CEO?”

    I’m sure that someone else out there can word smith my response better than I can. However, I really have an issue with accepting responsibility for a communication failure between Boss and CEO. At the risk of shutting the barn door after the horses are gone, it’s good practice when you are given direction by a superior authority to your boss to say something to the effect of, “Hey, Boss, CEO wants me to focus on Y project exclusively. Is that what you want?”

    1. Josh S*

      There’s a fine line in framing this and it depends onthe people involved. YOu can subtly shift blame to/from yourself based on the precise way you say it.

      “You’re right that I didn’t put a lot of energy into project X. [It was my understanding from the CEO that] project Y was a higher priority and so I was keeping my focus there. Was that the wrong call to make?” — Big boss told me so, so I followed his lead, but I didn’t confirm with you, so I guess I share part of the responsibility.

      “You’re right that I didn’t put a lot of energy into project X. [CEO told me that] project Y was a higher priority and so I was keeping my focus there. Was that the wrong call to make?” — I’m just following orders ; Manager’s fault for not getting on same page with CEO.

      “You’re right that I didn’t put a lot of energy into project X. [I had thought that] project Y was a higher priority and so I was keeping my focus there. Was that the wrong call to make?” — I’m to blame for not ensuring that the priority I got from CEO matches what Manager wants.

      All of these are different flavors of the same thing…and it shows why politics is so hard. I’d go with the first one personally, since it’s my job (in my current role anyway) to make sure priorities are aligned among all the stakeholders. Sometimes treacherous to navigate.

      1. Shannon*

        Your third is basically the same as Alison’s.

        I think why it bothers me is because I’ve been in that situation and used that verbiage. The next line out of boss’s mouth was essentially that it wasn’t my call to make that level of a prioritization decision. (What that boss really said probably isn’t fit to print, but, that’s the gist of it.)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s about either having an unreasonable boss or working in a very specific context; no advice will work for every situation, but reasonable bosses in most contexts won’t have that reaction.

          1. Shannon*

            You’re right, it was a bit of both. The boss was somewhat unreasonable, but, it was a military context, which does have clear delineations of authority.

  6. Josh S*

    I’ve actually had the opposite experience–I’m the sort who genuinely listens to criticism/feedback and reflects to see what is true/inaccurate beneficial/unhelpful, etc in a very accepting way. To the point that the people delivering the feedback think that I’m not really listening or accepting that they’re being critical.

    One of my early jobs, I had been promoted as a seasonal Supervisor during a particularly busy period….and then kept the Seasonal Supervisor position after the busy period was over because there wasn’t budget to promote me officially. (Was fine by me–they kept paying me overtime, so I’d actually have needed to take a pay cut to take the promotion to an Exempt position!)
    As one of the younger people on the team, as I exercised some of the supervisory ‘power’ to make sure folks were accountable to doing their jobs, a few of the more seasoned people were complaining about me among themselves. One of them, who I was on friendlier terms with, approached me after work one day and said something along the lines of, “You’re young, and you’re being too bossy and too blunt. You’re getting too big for your britches, and people are getting sick of it.”
    My response: “Thanks for letting me know I’m being perceived that way, Miranda. It’s not my intention to be bossy, and I know I have a tendency to be brusque in the way I communicate.”

    Knowing her and some of the others involved in the gossip (??doesn’t feel like the right word, but I’m at a loss for the right one), I’m pretty sure they were looking to get a response from me and “take me down a peg or two” as someone who was rapidly advancing.

    She basically walked away dumbfounded….I dunno if she expected me to defend myself or what, but it definitely shut her down. But she basically couldn’t believe that I didn’t respond.

    Now, as I thought about it and asked a couple other supervisors, I realized that while some of what she brought up was true (bluntness in communication), most of it was driven by resentment of authority. But by responding as I did in the moment, I definitely deflated any attempt they had to undermine me.

    Point is, actually listening and accepting the feedback at face value, then thinking on it and getting other perspective on the issues before deciding what to do with it–can have a really good impact on how others perceive you.

  7. AAA*

    This is great advice. I wonder what the advice is to giving feedback to someone who you know typically reacts defensively. It’s a bit easier when it is your direct report, but I am increasingly asked to give feedback on some people who are much higher up than I am, and it’s certainly a challenge. It’s really tricky when people are soliciting your candid feedback, and then get really defensive when it isn’t all positive (though I do try to make it all constructive!).

    1. fposte*

      You can’t completely prevent it because it’s up to them; one option you could go with, therefore, is not worrying about it and just considering it an expected thing they’re going to do. But if you can give them feedback via email and give them time to absorb it, rather than doing it face to face, that might help.

      1. Bekx*

        Yes! My boss has given me feedback over email and it was great. She sent it to me after I left for the day, so I got it first thing when I sat down at my desk. Then maybe two hours later she swung by to ask if I saw her email.

        Mine was for talking to coworkers too much (oops). The two hour buffer gave me enough time to get over my panic/embarrassment and really think about what she was saying to me. When she came by I was able to smile, say “Yeah, you’re totally right. I’m sorry!” and then improve.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      I could use this advice as well. This week I had my first one-on-one with a new employee and they were incredibly defensive about the smallest criticism – to the point where now I’m wondering about their self-awareness and professional maturity. I need to be able to give feedback to them in the future, but I need to find an effective way to do it.

      1. fposte*

        With a staffer, it’s different than when you’re giving feedback to a higher-up; you can bring defensiveness up as its own issue and talk about the need to change that behavior. I think Alison has done at least one post on this–I’ll see if I can find it and post the link.

          1. afiendishthingy*

            Thanks, this is very timely, I haven’t been managing people long and I have to have Frank Discussions with a couple of reports next week, both of whom are prone to defensiveness when corrected, followed by little-to-no change in the behavior that prompted the feedback. Will probably be the last chance for one of them, for the other it will be “You’ve had your last chance working in program x, we will still give you cases in lower-paying program y but your skills are not a fit for program x.” Both conversations should be super fun.

  8. Bee Eye LL*

    The only time I’ve ever been written up in my 20-year career is when a co-worker set me up for failure by offloading some work orders on me knowing I was walking into disaster. The customer complained and I took the hit for it. I found a new job less a month later.

  9. Stranger than fiction*

    I think a lot of times accepting criticism well comes with age/maturity. Not saying I’m unflappable, but sometime around the 40 mark i began noticing im much more comfortable in my own skin and more confident. In turn, i dont take things personally like i used to and have the ability to step back and look at things more neutrally. I still have a wicked temper, but i can keep my composure and take a walk around the block until i cool off if someone is way out of line and really pisses me off

  10. Miss Betty*

    What’s the best response when your manager is blatantly lying about you to your face? (This only happened to me once; I felt there was absolutely nothing I could do.)

    Or what if you’re being blamed for other’s mistakes? (That’s only happened to me at one workplace; it was one of the most frustrating experiences I ever had. So glad that one’s in the past! In that case, I tried to point out that those weren’t my errors and was accused of not taking criticism well and told that even if I didn’t make them, I should accept the criticism – and blame! – for them.)

    I’ve been working a long time so it’s not a surprise that I’ve had a couple (three, really) pretty dysfunctional workplaces.

  11. Reverse equivalent*

    A good way to find out whether or not feedback is reasonable is to imagine how your boss would react if you were to give the same feedback to your boss.

    1. fposte*

      I’m not sure that’s true, though; it’s not my employees’ job to manage me, and it would be inappropriate for them to do so. Now if I couldn’t accept that feedback from somebody who’s job it is to manage me, you’re right, that would be a good indication.

      But part of the boss’s job is to boss. That’s why it’s in the name.

  12. the_scientist*

    What do you do when the feedback is negative, but also completely unhelpful? I know someone who is really, really struggling at work right now. The boss expects him to read her mind and any attempts to seek clarification are met with “you should know that” or “you need to figure that out” or “stop asking so many questions”. He asked a coworker to send him the link to a file in the incredibly disorganized shared drive after sinking a fair amount of time into trying to locate himself, and that was met with “that’s your job to find it”- basically, no support, and no actionable feedback. I know the boss, and I fear that the boss has characterized this person as “not smart”, which is a Thing That She Does (I have heard her refer to employees as “not very bright” before). The person who is struggling has been on the job 3 months and had zero training. This is clearly a situation where he was set up to fail, but until he can get out and into a new job, what can he do with respect to negative feedback?

    1. Jennifer*

      In my experience doing the same thing, there isn’t shit you can do except job hunt and wait to be fired.

      What they want you to do is sit there quietly and take the abuse. I’ve learned to NOT defend myself in any way, because they do not want to hear it. Yes, I’m wrong, yes, I’m bad, I’m trying to do better, yes I get that that’s not good enough….etc, etc. Agree with everything they say because right now, their judgement is the only thing that matters.

  13. Christine*

    At my job I left before moving for grad school, on my second to last day manager asked if she could talk to me after work. Since she had a dentist appt the next afternoon and I wouldn’t see her before leaving, I figured it was just a standard exit interview/wish you luck/goodbye thing. Nope. It was almost 45, I repeat…forty-five!….minutes where she proceeded to tell me every minor infraction I had committed in the past 9 months and that she felt it was her responsibility to tell me this because grad school is a professional environment and she didn’t have high hopes I would succeed. I just sat there dumbfounded! Not once had I ever received negative feedback about literally anything she was bringing up. In fact, she frequently complimented my work! And some of the things she brought up were so trivial! When she was done she actually asked “what do you have to say for yourself?” Excuse me?! I said something along the lines of “That was a lot to process, so I don’t know what to say right now. I wish you had brought these things up when they were happening so I could have corrected it. Right now I just feel like there is nothing I can do with your feedback.” She brushed it off and said things were busy and she didn’t have the time to give me official feedback but said she had made small comments to me (I’m certain she didn’t) as had my coworkers (wait…so they are upset with me too!) This was all over a year and a half ago, but I still feel angry and mortified whenever I think about it.

  14. ABC*

    Hi, I received a mail from my boss saying he is disappointed with the way a meeting went with senior management due to us not receiving certain financials on time and it came across that we both was not ready for the meeting. He basically blamed me as he asked I get the details due to a personal crisis he is going through. But prior to the meeting, he asked me to send the presentation for him to check which I did and also told him I do not have all the financial details which I was waiting for from Finance. Anyway, he then went on saying that I must take ownership and he is tired of me saying I am waiting for feedback or the relevant person has not sent the information. And he doesn’t think I am coping with “all threads” that is happening. he now wants to understand my challenges and I must chart a way forward. I must think about all this and let him know when we can have a discussion. It is a contract position and am getting worried he may terminate my contract. I sent him a mail asking him to give me a day or 2 to respond. How should I respond to him?

  15. Paul*

    Dear Sir,

    how to reply to this email from my sales manager that he is wrong to cut my salary if i am late to send him my report
    please read below.

    Dear all,

    It’s the 5th of the month and most of you haven’t sent yet their reports. It’s not the first time that you are late to send your reports, it became a habit to send them late or even not to send them.
    It’s not about time, it’s about attitude and responsibility.
    You need to undersand that the reports are part of your job and that you are paid to do them.
    From now on, every employee who don’t send his report by latest the 2nd of the month, his salary will be deducted by 200 USD.
    I am sorry that i have reached this position to threaten you to do your job, but it looks that the nice way didn’t work with some of you.

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