how to take feedback gracefully, without getting defensive

I’m off for Memorial Day, so here’s an older post from the archives. This was originally published in 2007 (and was one of the very first posts here!).

If your manager takes the time to give you feedback, looking petulant and defensive and perhaps even outright pissed off is not a useful response.

It’s not that you just have to sit back and take it if you disagree with the criticism you’re hearing; it’s okay to say that you have a different point of view. But it’s all in how you do it, and it’s especially in your tone. For example:

Bad: Looking furious
Good: “I’m glad you’re telling me this. From my point of view, I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”

Bad: Getting defensive
Good: “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).”

Bad: Responding with a brusque “okay” and nothing more (this makes it look like you’re more interested in just getting the hell out of your boss’ office than in actually processing the feedback)
Good: Telling your boss what you’re going to do in response, even if it’s just to say you need to give it some thought.

Be glad your manager is giving you feedback! Plenty don’t bother and just leave you to wonder why you keep getting crappy raises. The managers who take the time to give you honest feedback are the ones you want (assuming they’re not toxic, vindictive, etc.).

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Tears of Purple Rain*

    Worse: start a gaslighting campaign to retaliate against the manager; tell everyone who’ll hear you out that your manager hates you and tell them often.

    1. fromscratch*

      This is happening in my office right now with a young-in-her-career coworker and it is so awkward when she starts ranting bc we all know she’s not being truthful.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Sounds like you need to break out the, “Really? That hasn’t been my experience with Manager at all.”

  2. Name Required*

    How are you supposed to react if the feedback doesn’t make sense?

    At a previous job, I had only ever gotten positive feedback, then, in my third annual review, my boss suddenly had a bunch of vague problems with my performance even though I hadn’t changed what I was doing and she’d never mentioned any issues before. She made a point to say that she didn’t have examples of the problems without me even asking. I didn’t say anything except “okay” because I was absolutely baffled and couldn’t imagine what she was referring to (especially since there were no examples!). I followed up with teammates afterwards and they told me I had always done, and was doing, great and that they couldn’t think of anything I should change.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Ask for guidance. Even if she has no examples, she should at least be able to answer, “What would you like to see me doing differently?”

      If she can’t, then there’s probably a diplomatic way to say that you’re not sure how to fix a problem you don’t understand.

      1. BRR*

        In addition to this excellent advice I might ask for your manager to point it out the next time they see it.

      2. Name Required*

        “What would you like to see me doing differently?” would have been a great response. Thanks!

        1. Argh!*

          I have this situation now, with a supervisor who can’t or won’t answer the question for “subjective” categories on my review. Since those subjective categories get an objective number which translates into money, I think we all deserve some clarity. My boss is a fuzzy thinker, so I doubt I will ever know what I could do differently, other than being a carbon copy of herself.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          You are giving me some much-needed perspective! Last week and this morning I’ve been dealing with the worst corporate mess I’ve seen here. You remind me I have a good boss and an employer who has been good so far. :)

    2. ElspethGC*

      One of the “You may also like” links is “my manager gave me critical feedback but refused to give specifics”. You might find that advice useful? I don’t know if the second-hand feedback part is relevant for you, but the script Alison provides looks pretty good.

      1. Name Required*

        Thanks for pointing that out! I totally missed the suggested/related posts. The post seems helpful, and I’m going to read through the comments section too.

        My supervisor didn’t say it was second-hand feedback, but maybe it was.

    3. stuff*

      I have received some weird feedback too. I had some projects where things didn’t go well. I owned up and my manager had to jump in and save my ass. I messed up, and I knew and admitted it. My manager knew. Everybody knew. But at the end of the year he told my I was doing a great job. What’s the point of giving me feedback if you’re not going to be honest

      Then one day our HR manager stopped me and said there have been complaints about my productivity. When I asked for more details she said she didn’t know who complained or what the complaints were. What was I supposed to do with that?

      My new manager seems to avoid conflict at all cost. So I get no feedback from him at all.

    4. Michaela Westen*

      I once had a boss who said I had an “underlying disrespect” in my attitude that bothered her. I didn’t know what she was talking about and she said she would point it out next time.
      She never did. I worked for her 5 years. After I got to know her I think her problem was that I have self-respect, I set boundaries. She was a monster who wanted to take over the lives of her employees and enjoyed hurting people and starting fights. She had no respect for anyone, but expected to be treated like royalty.

    5. Name*

      It sounds really confusing and the other suggestions for follow up questions are great.

      I’d advise against only using teammates as the barometer for your performance. They’re invested in maintaining their relationship with you, so the impulse to confirm your story is always a possibility. They’re also not looking at things from a management perspective. Another team leader would have been a better person for guidance.

      Another possibility is that your manager had previously tried to informally talk with you about specific problems and found that technique didn’t work well, so they wanted to try a general overview approach. Or maybe they had tried to bring up specific events with a past employee, it turned into an argument about those issues instead of a chat about improved behavior, and now the manager will never give examples again. Not saying it’s best practice, but there might have been method to the madness.

  3. New Here*

    I just had to give constructive feedback to my first direct report, and basically all of these things in the bad column happened and worse. I wish I could send this to him and actually have him read it and take it to heart.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      The first time I got constructive criticism from a manager was about five months into my first professional job (I was 22), and I reacted with obvious defensiveness and brusqueness. I had just completed a practice presentation in front of the team, which was a new and very stressful experience for me. Back in the office afterwards, my manager asked me a series of questions about stuff that I had omitted from the presentation – her POV was that I needed to clarify these things in the real upcoming presentation, because the audience would likely have similar questions. My interpretation was that she thought I hadn’t done my job right so I got super defensive.

      She wasn’t attacking me or criticizing my performance, it was probably very tame as critiques go but I had little experience with negative feedback from teachers or professors so I just didn’t know how to handle it.
      Fortunately my supervisor took me aside and called me on it. I think he was really surprised that I reacted so poorly and felt he needed to break it down for me. I remember that was kind of humiliating too, but I’m glad he did and the upshot was that I was able to recognize that I was in the wrong. I apologized to the manager about my attitude a few hours later and everything was smoothed over.

      Honestly I don’t think there was anything the manager could have done differently to avoid my reaction. Maybe wait a day so the stress of the presentation was well over and I wasn’t so personally tied up with it. But really it was just my inexperience with that kind of situation. I learned, I got better about accepting criticisms with grace, it just took some time.

  4. Kaitastic*

    Ok so how to respond from the manager’s side? All my employees act defensive, aggressive or just try to shut the conversation down. I feel like im talking to a brick wall, ugh

    1. Close Bracket*

      Hard to say with out being there, but from my perspective :), I would respond better if my boss would start out by asking me questions about the situation rather than by telling me what I did wrong.

    2. Kala*

      As a manager, I like picking a specific example and asking what it looked like from their perspective. That opens up the conversation to how others interpreted it, and sometimes we can collaborate on a better way to solve the problem than I had originally construed by myself.

    3. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

      I was about to say…exactly the same thing Alison said. If it’s your entire team instead of individuals, then it’s either a problem with the culture or with your approach – and I’m not sure what it would be from here.

      My suggestion to you is to try to make your employees feel as comfortable as possible in the situation. I’m not sure of your approach to feedback, but what I try to do is…if it’s a minor thing, I’ll actually end up making a couple of jokes (this is kind of what my team expects of me, so it’s not too out-of-character), and explain that – like – I don’t see this as a deathly serious issue, but I do need to see improvement. If it’s something that’s more serious – like, their performance is consistently poor, or there’s a SERIOUS issue – I’ll try to be more compassionate to the employee. I mean, they made a MAJOR mistake, but also…like, it’s their job that’s on the line. The stakes are almost always lower for me than it is for them.

      And it’s not perfect! I’ve still had employees melt down on me – one of them did last week during their performance review. (They were the only one to do so, and it wasn’t totally unprecedented. And…it was not a sparkling review, I’ll admit.) And honestly, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always great at giving feedback. But a lot of the time, this does seem to work for me.

    4. Sylvan*

      When they take steps in the right direction, encourage that. Show that you are giving criticism because you think they have the ability to improve.

    5. CoveredInBees*

      Are you only giving feedback when people mess up? That tends to cause people to dread hearing from you and automatically feel the need to be on the defensive.

    6. Michaela Westen*

      It may be culture, and another thing that occurs to me is the background of the employees.
      If you have mostly entry-level employees from backgrounds of abuse or poverty, these are the reactions they learned growing up. I was like that. My family wasn’t poor, but my parents were abusive.
      The only advice I can give is if possible, make sure they don’t feel threatened. Try to get across that they’re not going to be fired or punished, you just need them to make some minor changes.
      Good luck!

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Also, try not to be too soft. If they will get in trouble for not making changes, you need to make that clear. There’s nothing worse than being fired or punished when you don’t know you did anything wrong!

  5. Liz*

    Reading the “good” comments helps but sometimes it is so difficult to know what the “from my perspective” part is in the moment.

  6. Close Bracket*

    This reminds me of an interview question I got- I was asked how I build trust with my coworkers. The interviewer then gave me the context that her boss had told her that she had gained the trust of management, but that she needed to gain the trust of her coworkers. I was flummoxed! I did not handle the question well at all. I have never ever even thought about that! I thought that woman’s boss was terrible at giving feedback, and I had to sort of talk around that since that was the only thing I could think at the time. It’s stuck with me, though. What would you do if someone told you that you needed to gain the trust of your coworkers?

    1. soon 2 be former fed*

      I would make sure what aspect of trust she thinks is lacking. Am I unreliable? Do I seem unknowledgable? Sneaky? So, I would ask for details, using these reference points. If none were forthcoming, I would say thank you, I hope their trust comes with time since I don’t know what behaviors I can change to help the process.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Yes, those are good questions. Among all the things flying around in my brain, I was wondering “Trust me with what? Trust that I know my stuff? Trust that I won’t steal the coffee club money?” Behind that was, “Why don’t they trust me?” Projecting to the workplace I was interviewing at, I was wondering, “Am I going to have to go around proving myself? Are they going to work to gain my trust?”

        I trust people by default, in the professional sense, at least. I wouldn’t hand over my credit card, but I trust that they know their stuff and do their job until I’m proven wrong. I tend to think of knowing my stuff and doing my work as a default, not as something I’m doing to specifically gain people’s trust.

    2. Liz*

      I think that is an excellent question! In some ways that is addressed here for a kind of ideal situation/coworkers. Don’t gossip, help others, be respectful of others’ time and work, etc.

      But what do you do when coworkers have not read the book on work norms? I see people get upset by things that I would never notice or care about. Like how much or friendly you are when you wave hello to coworkers. Our manager now has to work 8:30 to 5 instead of 8 to 4:30 bc a coworker complained about special treatment. This makes it very difficult for him to pick up his kids on time. And there is no earthly reason the manager needs to he there the last half hour.

      People are hard!

      1. Close Bracket*

        You mean the interviewers question or my question? I think it was a shitty interview question and shitty feedback because it’s not actionable. There’s no context there. What do they not trust me/her with and why not? Good feedback needs to be specific and actionable, and good interview questions should be designed to be answered with either knowledge/thought or a situation. Good goals need to be measurable. “Earn the trust of your coworkers” is not good feedback or a good goal or a good interview question.

        1. mountainshadows299*

          Honestly, there is *some* context here for you to draw from- they note that you’ve gained the trust of management, but not of your coworkers. So, to me, they’re basically asking you whether you know how to treat not only management, but also your coworkers, in a professional and kind way, because, overall, people are going to trust you more or less based on how you treat them (and to a slightly lesser extent, how well you do your job and if you have their back). I say this because the ability to rely on the team is extremely important in my line of work, and I’ve seen people come onto my team who are so severely competitive that they gossip, undermine their teammates, and team split but are sugary sweet to management in the hopes of moving up more quickly even if they aren’t good at their actual job or helpful to others on the team. Those personality types are absolutely toxic to a team where actual teamwork, trust, and transparency are extremely important to the work being done.

          That probably would have been my first thought when being asked this question, but obviously I have no knowledge of what it is that you do or what you were applying for. If it isn’t something that requires a high level of trust and cohesion on a team, then yeah, you probably need more clarifying information as to what they’re asking.

      2. Michaela Westen*

        Oh, God, wavers! There was a dental receptionist who happened to be on the corner near where I lived.
        Whenever I went for dental she was all “I saw you walking by and you didn’t wave back!” Because I was looking where I was going? Because I had other things to think about?
        She just wanted attention. She *thought* she was being friendly, but it was really being needy.
        I would have a lot of trouble working with people who gauge how much I wave or say when I’m coming and going! Seriously, get a life!!!

    3. Cedrus Libani*

      That…seems like a very odd thing to bring up in an interview. If you don’t understand some feedback you’ve received, ask a mentor or a friend, don’t try to get advice out of some random interviewee!

      That said, if I received that feedback, I’d ask for more details. There are many variables that influence how much, and in what areas, I trust a coworker. If the person gives me an ETA, will it be ready on time, or sometime next month? If I help them, will they give credit where it’s due? If I’m inadvertently stealing their sugar packets, will they tell me, or will they ask their boss to complain to mine?

      I am generally on top of the professionalism aspects of this, but it’s within my range to miss a social cue and therefore have people annoyed with me. I know this; that’s why I’m a subject-matter expert, not a manager. I am willing to correct my behavior, but you’ll have better results if you tell me the specific behaviors required. If I got a generic “some people don’t like you”, I’d probably find a coworker known to be socially skilled and plugged in to office gossip, throw myself at their mercy, and ask if there’s anything specific about me that is causing problems.

      For the record, I’ve said parts of this in an interview – my greatest weakness is that I’m not great with hints, and can struggle in “guess” cultures.

  7. Liz*

    In reply to Kaitastic and New Here, my supervisors in my current workplace don’t have regular one on ones and so there is almost no way to teach employees that feedback, both positive and negative, is normal. They only meet with you over problems. And the problems are often things like another staff person thinks you don’t wave hello to them as often as you do to others so you need to stop waving to all (that actually happened to a coworker).

    What I am saying is that managers can get us all on the same page that feedback is normal and helpful and focused on work. One thing that my current manager does is ask me to tell her about x. This means I get to think about what it is, what happened without her (or the complainer’s) assessment clouding my thoughts. But the comments are almost never about improving our work product.

  8. Marie*

    Worse is when the company uses an anonymous survey from staff to gather feedback about you the supervisor. Then that info is used on your evaluation even though it was never seen. Turns into upset people venting about you, though very few and not representative of the majority.

    1. voyager1*

      But sometimes anonymous surveys are the only fair way to get employees to open up about their supervisors because of the power dynamics involved. However some will take an anonymous survey as a excuse to just to be a jerk too.

    2. all aboard the anon train*

      To be fair, most employees aren’t going to tell their boss what they don’t like about their managing style. A boss can give feedback and criticism to their employee, but it’s rare to see that go the other way. There’s a lot I don’t like about my boss and his management style, but I would only ever bring it up in an anonymous survey. He controls my raises, performance review, and career. If he doesn’t like what he hears, however legitimate and fair, I’m the one who is punished.

  9. smoke tree*

    Obviously this isn’t what the article is about, but it just reminds me of the awful retail manager I once had who would make up fake things to accuse me of and would shut me in a room and berate me about them and wouldn’t let me go until I apologized. Weirdly this is the only manager “feedback” I’ve ever experienced! I’m hoping I’m able to handle it okay if I ever do have a manager who gives feedback, because my work life has not prepared me for it.

  10. Argh!*

    Sometimes it’s impossible to hide my feelings, especially when I feel the criticism is unfair. Also, my boss will act like everything is fine, and then shoot a zinger at some seemingly random moment months later, and sometimes years later. I think she’s being passive-aggressive, or maybe just cowardly until she’s annoyed by something I say that gets under her skin, and then that annoyance gives her the courage to reach into the past to find something to throw at me. If she’s trying to hurt my feelings, she’s disappointed, because stuff like this says more about her than about me.

    My main response is (or was) usually “What should I be doing differently?” With other bosses I’ve gotten actionable advice. With current boss: “I’ll get back to you on that” and then she never does. It’s infuriating, and sometimes I can’t help but show how frustrating and infuriating it is to work for her.

  11. Keener*

    Any tips for staying composed? Anytime I am having a discussion about performance/career progression with my (fantastic) current manager I find my eyes watering. I then get quiet and withdraw since I am trying to hold it together. I know this is a hang up from my previous job with a toxic manager. Early in my career I found performance reviews/career development discussions a good experience, but since toxic job I haven’t been able to shake the dread and pit in the bottom of my stomach when I have one coming up. This is despite the discussions with my current manager always being very supportive and forward looking with the identification of development opportunities to help me further my career. I want to ensure my body language/reaction isn’t discouraging my manager from having these conversations with me since I know they are critical for my progression.

  12. Mad Baggins*

    What is the difference between giving an explanation/reason/your perspective and giving an excuse? Any concrete tips to make it come across as the former not the latter?

    1. Someone else*

      Partially it’s in the tone, but a hopefully helpful example. This was Allison’s “Good”

      “I’m glad you’re telling me this. From my point of view, I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”

      Here’s a more defensive version of the same:
      “But projects x and z were higher priorities and so of course I had to do that first and couldn’t have done blahblah at the same time.”

      Not a perfect example but hopefully illustrates the difference somewhat? In the first one you’re asking for actionable info. In the second you’re just saying that you’re not wrong. That’s usually the essence of the line.

        1. Someone else*

          The point isn’t that you are necessarily wrong. The point is how you react. The goal should be to understand where the feedback came from, not to prove/disprove one’s wrongness. If your headspace is “but I’m not wrong” you’re more likely to sound defensive. If you recalibrate to “I want to understand what Boss wants me to have done differently” the discussion is more likely to be productive, assuming the boss is reasonable. If you’re not dealing with a reasonable person, all bets are off.
          Continuing the example above, if you weren’t wrong, the boss would probably respond to the question about prioritization with “no, you’re right, those two were higher priority.” If they were higher, but not so high it’d be ok to completely drop whatever hypothetical thing got dropped, the boss would then clarify that.

          On the other hand, if you’re dealing with Unreasonable Boss and the situation is more like Boss said “please do A and then B, wait on C” and then the feedback is “you should’ve done C. I never said that.” Then there’s no point in trying to understand, but there’s also probably no point in being defensive either. With Unreasonable Boss, you cannot win.

          1. TardyTardis*

            I had a supervisor who swore she never told me to do something that she told me to do, and this is why I confirmed a lot of stuff by email after that. Funny how she never tried that on something after that.

  13. Thanks!*

    Read in a book to say “thank you” (or “thank you, I hadn’t thought of it that way” to feedback, even if you didn’t agree with it.

    Saying thank you doesn’t commit you to changing, and can make the other person feel heard.

  14. Mel*

    I need to remember this myself. I was socialized to where I had to be super defensive of any perceived mistake, so I have to remind myself to be sure to take in valid criticism. As a teen, I lived in a super abusive home and I was regularly accused of acts I didn’t so, or saying/doing the wrong thing and accidentally angering my stepmother.
    I also try to figure out and propose concrete solutions to show how i will address problems in the future. To me, that helps demonstrate that I have taken in criticism and take it seriously.
    I specify “valid” because I know I’ve received criticism in a volunteer organization I’m part of, but completely disagree. It’s usually about how direct I am when I disagree with someone, but I like being direct and not have to tiptoe around problems (especially because I think such feedback is incredibly gendered, and that my bluntness is criticized because I’m a woman).

  15. Minocho*

    I am getting old now, so I have a more experienced perspective – and I’ve worked on improving my “I am a software developer” social cluelessness to a point where I can pass for a normal human at times – but I still struggle with a default defensiveness immediately upon receiving negative feedback. This happens during code review, and when receiving criticism or correction.

    For me, there are two critical things I do to prevent that defensiveness from causing an issue. First, I pause a bit before allowing myself to respond out loud. My internal defensive reaction doesn’t need to be external. I couldn’t tell you if I prevent anything from appearing on my face or in my body language, but I can prevent any words. Second, I remember a boss I had a few jobs ago, who didn’t let me know when I was not performing an important task correctly – and I proceeded to perform it incorrectly for about a year. I was mortified to find out that I was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle for a year, and upset that no one, no coworkers and no management, thought it would be good to inform me of my error. I found out by overhearing coworkers discussing the issue, and went to my manager myself to confirm this was an issue. That’s how I know that receiving word that I am doing something that is either incorrect or could be improved is a good thing. Remembering that situation allows me to get over my emotional reaction and attack whatever the issue may be with an appropriate attitude and my intellect, rather than emotion.

    Getting a chance to perform code reviews and observing other such dynamics from outside of the situation gives me the other side’s perspective as well. Seeing the fallout and needless drama from poor reactions to constructive criticism has given me the perspective I need to take criticism and use it to improve myself.

  16. Beancounter in Texas*

    Receiving criticism was a tough lesson for me to learn, and I did it with many tears in my piano lessons. For the first 13 years of my piano playing, I never truly received criticism. I received some correction, but mostly for rhythm or pedaling. In college, however, my coach gave heavy constructive criticism and after the first year, I could handle her feedback, mostly without tears. After two years, I looked forward to her criticism because she pushed me from being an ordinary talented pianist, to a methodical, focused, mature pianist.

  17. user8246*

    What if the feedback is really bad? “Bad” meaning your boss is simply wrong.

    I got feedback and when I asked about examples, my boss actually told me one example of what my colleague did, not me.

    He also called me “pushy” for being assertive.

    And when I raise problems to him (e.g. a colleague expecting me to do his tasks and making me explain him things many times, as long as I need to come to the conclusion “it will be faster if I do it for you”), my boss sees it as my poor communication skills.

    1. MtnLaurel*

      Reminds me of the feedback I got to “be less polite.” When I asked for an example, I was told that I say “please” and “thank you” too much. The only cure for that was to get a new boss.

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