I’m bad at taking feedback

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talked to a guest who doesn’t take feedback well. Here’s the letter:

I would love to talk more about accepting negative feedback or just criticism in general. I’m finishing my PhD in chemistry and am currently interviewing for jobs. I have gotten feedback a few times from my current boss/colleagues about not accepting criticism or feedback well and taking things too personally. When I give seminars about my research, I tend to unknowingly get defensive when people ask questions at the end. Additionally, when my current boss gives me negative feedback, I struggle to keep my emotions inside and not look too upset or angry. Any help on how I could process and respond to criticism or negative feedback better would be greatly appreciated. Please help!

The show is 30 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Cordoba*

    I often remind myself that “I’m probably wrong about half of the things I think; the problem is that I don’t know which half.”

    Feedback is a great way to sort that out.

    Approaching life and work and technical discussions as “I’m just trying to figure this stuff out, same as anybody else” instead of “I’m an expert with special qualifications and BIG IDEAS that are beyond question” goes a long way towards helping to be receptive to the idea of feedback generally. Specific feedback still needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, of course.

    1. Birch*

      This is so important. The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know. Your boss doesn’t know everything, you don’t know everything, and you really just need to meet in the middle. It helps a lot to come at it from a place of openness.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      “I’m probably wrong about half of the things I think; the problem is that I don’t know which half.”

      I love this! This is great framing.

      I will also freely acknowledge that there are things that I outright suck at. My boss has a lot of complementary skills to mine, and I use that to my advantage and ask for guidance on how I can handle something at which I’m not as strong.

  2. Lilo*

    This is hard, but as someone who has trained a lot of people, taking feedback well is really really crucial.

    I think the one thing is to try to hold your reaction. It is natural to want to try to defend or argue right away. If possible, take time to digest feedback and consider it. You also need to learn to not let criticism of work provoke an emotional result. There are things you will get wrong and that is okay. It is not a criticism of you a a person, you are not worth less because you make mistakes. Every new place you work is going to have different policies. You just have to adjust. Try to keep that in mind.

    1. Argh!*

      I currently supervise someone who has such a fragile ego that they cannot even connect a mistake to themselves in any way, let alone take performance feedback. It’s always someone else’s fault or some strange mystery. Even when I say “Nobody messed with your stuff. You’re the one who did this. Everyone makes mistakes. I just want you to be aware of it so you can fix it.” No, it wasn’t me. It was someone else! I *know* I fixed this yesterday! “But I first noticed it the day before yesterday, checked yesterday, and then checked again today, and that’s when I realized I’d need to let you know because you hadn’t noticed on your own.” I *know* I fixed it yesterday! Someone must have come along afterward and…. “Like they did four days ago?”

      There’s just no getting through to some people who are fundamentally damaged. They are destined to low level jobs because they can’t learn.

  3. Stuff*

    Have you taken a step back to see what is it about the criticism that causes your reaction? Is it you feel personally attacked? Do you feel it is unjustified? Or do you feel it is justified and you have an imposter syndrome feeling. Digging into the why you can’t take criticism is important in how to deal with it.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      This is a good point. For me I feel like I’m trying to explain how I got to whatever conclusion I reached, because I don’t want them to think I was just being careless or didn’t notice the problem (I mean, assuming that I did have some thought process). The problem is that when I’m jumping in to explain myself, I come across as defensive or argumentative because I don’t seem to be listening calmly and thoughtfully. I’m working on listening first, then saying something like, “ah, thank you, I appreciate you explaining that” – and *then* giving the one sentence explanation if I really feel like it’s necessary.

      1. Blue*

        I run into this, as well. My go-to strategy is asking a follow up question to the criticism (requesting an example, asking for clarification/further insight, etc.), which buys me a moment to process/fight down the instinctive defensive reaction *and* helps me get a clearer picture of where they’re coming from/how to fix the problem. Then, yeah, I briefly explain my thought process, followed by something like, “…but I understand where I went wrong and will avoid that next time.” Then, of course, you have to actually follow up.

      2. blackcat*

        Another strategy is to repeat back to them what they said, in your own words.
        “Let me check that I’ve heard you. You’re saying that llamas are more closely related to camels than horses, correct?” And when they say yes, then explain why you disagreed.
        I’m betting a fair bit of the time, you’re not actually interpreting the feedback correctly. Taking the time to repeat back the feedback to check your understanding is a good practice. You will also be better able to pinpoint if they have misunderstood you. It’s win-win.

      3. ChachkisGalore*

        Oh man, I had this same issue (still do, but I think I’ve gotten way better), because I did actually have an awful boss that accused me of being lazy with every mistake I made.

        Even when I got to the next job (with a very reasonable boss) I was terrified that new boss would also assume I was lazy, so I’d launch into the whole backstory.

        I still think it’s valuable to provide color/backstory surrounding the issue (maybe not always, but most of the time – your manager can’t help you fix the problem if they don’t understand what the root issue is), but there is definitely a time, place, and manner in which to do so.

        1. RobotWithHumanHair*

          This sounds like the same problem as me. Horrible past boss who basically gaslit me into thinking I was awful, current reasonable boss I’m terrified of letting down.

  4. LQ*

    I thought the point about bosses assuming that people know overall where they stand/how they are doing was a really good one.

    The LW talked about sometimes the boss will say to keep working the problem a certain way when she wanted to switch, and that if the solution came eventually she would feel the boss was right but that if it didn’t she’d feel like he was wrong. I don’t think that’s true. And if that’s a frequent thing maybe the boss is highlighting a pattern (poorly by not saying, it’s a pattern) of switching strategies too often so just pushing LW to keep going. Looking at my boss’s feedback for patterns has been really helpful to me. Sometimes that pattern is about them, sometimes it’s about me (comparing it to others can be useful to figure out which). But having a pattern lets me put it in new light. (Sometimes the pattern is when I meet with my boss after he meets with Jack from Accounting the meeting will never get anything done because he wants to talk about how stupid Jack is instead of my problems. Sometimes it’s my boss gives better feedback on writing in the mornings and if you catch him in the afternoon he’s going to be way pickier about commas and font choice so rough drafts in the morning and final drafts in the afternoons.)

  5. Chelsea*

    I am also in a praise desert with my current manager. It is her first time managing anyone and frankly she is horrible. And I say this having had several other jobs in the same line of work, and great rapport with all of my other bosses. But this new boss is honestly out to highlight every small mistake of mine, and I think that I may just be her punching bag. For example, she tells me my work is wrong all the time, and when I do something right, she still tells me that it could have been better (thereby seemingly discouraging me for the sake of discouragement). I am actually considering quitting a really great job because of my horrible manager. Yesterday in a meeting she also said that she hopes I don’t take the criticism personally, but it feels extremely personal. I am unsure of what to do.

    1. Bea*

      Ew. She reminds me of how my dad can be (thankfully I can shut him down). The whole “could be better tho”, malarkey. His idea is “nothing is perfect and can always be improved!”. It created a hell for me when I started my relationship and was terrified my cooking was going to be an issue because my dad nitpicks every dish to the point I refuse to cook for him.

      There isn’t much you can do to change these people. Especially when they pull a “it’s not personal!” card. It is personal. That’s the cousin phrase of “I’m sorry you’re offended but…” crap.

      So please preserve yourself and go elsewhere. Your boss sucks.

      1. Chelsea*

        I think I need to look for another job. She literally is the most pedantic person I have ever met, but when I actually apply her pedantic methods, I am somehow TOO pedantic. I think she actually really just does not like me because I can’t explain why else she would seek to scrutinize and demoralize me to this extent.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      That’s so demoralizing! I worked for someone like that once, and I loathed the guy – when I was heavily pregnant, I worked 14-hour days on a challenging project, and, when the attorney whose project it was expressed appreciation for my hard work and doing great job under such difficult circumstances, my boss told him that he didn’t personally see what was so great about anything I did. Thanks, dude.

      I am a tough grader because of the level of detail and quality required of the work that we do, but nearly everyone that works for me has something that they do well. The best ones buddy up with someone who does different things well, and we have some stellar teams because of it. I can only think of one time that I had someone on my team who literally did nothing well, and I found it really difficult because you want to praise something.

      1. Chelsea*

        That is terrible. And I totally agree. My boss is so defensive and literally today I stated that I had looked as hard as I could for this piece of data and she responded “Chelsea, stop apologizing. I know that you try hard.” Sounds positive right? But the sheer amount of venom in her voice was awful.

        1. voyager1*

          What jumped out at me was that you said you had good rapport with previous managers. Something a management professor once said has always stuck with me. “After having a great manager, a average one will seem bad, and a bad one will be unbearable.” I had a awesome manager in my previous job, my current manager has a few failings, after having a great manager before her, the failings are very apparent. Hang in there!

    3. Smarty Boots*

      Does she critique only you this way, or everybody? That is, Is she not good at giving criticism or is she picking on you? That can make a difference to how you respond. You may want to leave either way…

      1. Chelsea*

        I am not sure. The only other person that she manages, a girl also in my position, has been here six months longer so she has had time to know how everything works. It does seem like my boss is friends with this other person, though.

        Yesterday she thought that I had failed to include a key piece of information in my draft, but really she just didn’t see it. When I pointed it out, her first reaction was “that wasn’t there yesterday.” When I said it actually was, she harshly told me not to be so defensive and it’s not about being right or wrong. But I just told her it because she said she was going to have to do it – but in reality she wasn’t, because I had already done it! She’s a literal nightmare and I am job searching.

  6. Bea*

    The good news is you can rewire yourself sometimes.

    When I was younger my response was to defend because being wrong was scary, so I fought any challenges. Often feedback is viewed as a challenge.

    I started to loosen up and accept that others will approach things differently and maybe they have a point. Especially if they’re my boss, I’m paid to go with their flow.

    Then I got thrown into a world I had very little control of. The world of managing a man with developing dementia. All sense goes out the window. I’m not fighting that battle. Once you can file away the feedback and respond after it’s digested you’ll have a less strong reaction. Also you learn and grow so much more when you take that shield!

  7. Moomintroll*

    I have a question related to this–I know the advice is often “don’t get defensive” but what if you want to, you know, defend yourself (e.g. you got conflicting directions from two higher ups)? Obviously I don’t want to come across as defensive or tattle telling or throwing X person under the bus, but I do want to not get in trouble for it.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      The thing with feedback, though, is that it’s not usually about getting in trouble, it’s about doing the job better or finding a way to move forward. (This is assuming your manager isn’t crap, of course, which is not always a safe assumption!) A lot of work is also results-oriented, so it doesn’t matter if someone has a really good reason for making a mistake (even a perceived one), it’s still a mistake and often one that needs to not occur in future work.

      In a situation where two higher-ups are giving conflicting directions, that’s a place where it would be totally appropriate to ask for clarification, but it’s all about tone. “I was just doing what Bob told me to do!” is a lot different than, “I see how this happened. You had asked me for X, and then Bob asked for Y. I assumed that he was updating your instructions when I probably should have gotten clarification or mentioned the discrepancy to him. Who would be the best person to help sort that out next time?”

    2. Super dee duper anon*

      I’m also curious how to gently (or not so gently) pushback if the feedback you’re getting is objectively incorrect.

      So an example from my life – at one point I missed doing something because I stepped away from my desk before it needed to be done and lost track of the time. Manager kept going on and on and on about how I needed to work on my teamwork. How she would have been happy to take care of the thing if I had just told her and I needed to be more open and communicative with the team in general. I kept trying to explain that I was fully aware that I could have asked for her help. The problem was I stepped away from my desk and lost track of the time. Which is very bad! I made a bad mistake and fully acknowledge/don’t defend it! The issue was time management though, not team work.

      At the time I was headstrong and dumb and wouldn’t “give in” (say I would work on my teamwork), but I just wonder now if there was some way to handle it better. Managers are human too, and they’re bound to be “wrong” sometimes – so how are you supposed to handle that as a report?

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Is it possible that your manager was considering being present and available an aspect of teamwork? I ask because I ran into this situation at work recently where someone was frequently MIA, and it left the work that needed to be done to a teammate, who already had a pretty full plate. I did speak with the MIA about their responsibility to the team to be where they were supposed to when they were supposed to, to keep their team in the loop when they were away for an extended period, and the negative consequences that it had on their teammate who picked things up in their absence. It wasn’t just that they took a longer lunch than expected, it was that they didn’t tell anyone and, as a result, stuck someone else with two people’s work.

        I don’t know if that would make sense in your specific situation, though.

  8. IL JimP*

    As a manager I had a similar problem when giving feedback. I was giving positive feedback before going over opportunities but it wasn’t connecting because it felt more like a checklist. You did these five things great ABCDE, now for the rest of the time let’s talk about the 1 thing you need to work on.

    I didn’t even realize I was doing it until my new manager asked me to record some of my 1-on-1s and he pointed it out to me right away after just hearing a couple. Changing this up completely changed the way the team viewed our conversations and helped everyone relax more during them.

  9. Database Developer Dude*

    Here’s the thing about negative feedback from someone in authority over you: There’s an automatic assumption that it’s justified.

    Keep your reactions to yourself, yes. Think about the feedback, YES! Don’t always assume that if someone’s giving you negative feedback it means you automatically did something wrong. Sometimes it’s more about them than you.

  10. anonners*

    What about negative feedback from someone who has no authority over you and also isn’t your customer? I’m having a difficult time dealing with what I perceive to be kneejerk criticism from a colleague who is usually distrustful of any work that isn’t done the way she would do it. Her criticisms are typically of work that I’ve done that meets or exceeds my manager’s and clients’ expectations.

    1. Database Developer Dude*

      In that case, I’d say “Fuck off” might be an appropriate response. If your colleague’s name is Jane, and you’re also female, you might go the Saturday Night Live in the 70’s route…. males, don’t do this, you will not be able to get away with it.

      1. MarsJenkar*

        Honestly, I would think that SNL sketch phrase was a bit harsh *even in* the scenario you describe–from a woman to a woman. As tempting as the line might be, I would not recommend it be used outside of a fictional work.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I would call that white noise. If my manager and client think my work is up to par, I don’t really care what Debbie Downer thinks. If it’s frequent and distracting, you can always address it with her directly or ask your manager if there is any feedback you should be taking from Debbie’s diatribes and use that as a, “Thanks for your input, but I discussed it with Arya, and she is happy with this version.”

  11. OneWeepyEye*

    I am definitely making time to listen to this today. Just an hour ago I was thinking I need to figure out a way to stop reacting so strongly to implications I am doing something incorrectly. The funny thing is, I don’t get freaked out when my boss gives me negative feedback.

  12. feministbookworm*

    As soon as I heard that the letter writer was in academia, I had a suspicion they were getting overwhelmingly negative feedback. This is so, so common in the relationship between advisors and graduate students, particularly PhD students, and particularly in STEM fields (and, perhaps even more particularly, women in STEM fields). While I was lucky to have a great relationship with my advisor, I had several female friends getting continuous ridiculous criticism from their advisors. One was being told that she was insufficiently dedicated to her work because she spent 2 hours a week in music rehearsals.

    1. Tired*

      I majored in music performance. I can count on one hand the number of compliments I received during my collegiate career. I think it can be easy to assume a defensive role when you’re used to negativity being thrown at you 24/7.

      1. feministbookworm*

        I also majored in music performance in undergrad, though my experience was more along the lines of another of today’s letters– the teacher who was supposed to be my advisor spent the first year of my career asking me why I was wasting my time at a elite liberal arts school instead of an elite conservatory (because I like music AND other things and hated the vibe at the elite conservatories), and then essentially stopped giving me useful feedback when he realized I wasn’t going to transfer. Another faculty member, in response to my request for critical feedback, told me my playing was “too aggressive” and other such helpfully vague comments, only for me to find out later from another faculty member that he just didn’t like that I played works written after 1850.

      2. Roja*

        I too have struggled with this. I majored in dance, which is pretty much constant critique on absolutely everything, from your personality to your movement. Even when you have a reasonably healthy environment with some praise thrown in, it’s still criticism, criticism, criticism. It’s been four years since I’ve been out of that environment and I’m only now getting to the place where I want feedback again. I’ve been pretty lucky to have hands-off and/or positive managers for the last few years, which has given me space to breathe and gain some confidence. But still, I think it’ll take a few years yet before I stop being so jumpy and remember than I am actually good at my jobs and am no longer being graded on every little detail.

  13. Chaordic One*

    I’m one of those people who has too much on my plate and in the course of getting the work done I have to establish priorities and not let the perfect be the enemy of good enough. I usually have a good idea of what my feedback is going to be and it is almost always some variation of the 5% of a project that isn’t perfect, but that got shoved out the door because of a deadline. I should be used to it by now, but the criticism almost always stings.

    I just sort of grit my teeth, agree with the criticism, and promise to do better next time.

  14. Kay*

    Related question- I got feedback a few weeks ago that I’d made a mistake at work. I was pretty new at the time, and a technical superior had told me to do it the way that was wrong. So when I was corrected, I asked to clarify what exactly what the rule was because I was confused, and my boss said ‘well I don’t want to quibble about it’. I fixed it, and then later he apologised for being short.

    Basically I’m wondering, does asking follow up questions or clarifying what exactly was wrong after criticism read as defensive or argumentative? Is it better to just nod and fix the mistake?

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      It really depends – there are some times people ask me follow-up questions that seem less designed to clarify what needs to happen and more about making sure that blame is placed elsewhere (e.g., “So when Bob told me to print the TPS report on the wrong color paper, I should not listen to his directions then?” v. “Just to make sure I understand, the TPS reports are always to be printed on violet paper ?”).

      I work somewhere that questions are expected, and we talk about that in interview, orientation, and in feedback – we don’t have time to do it over, so we would much, much rather that you ask than blow a deadline. I know that’s not universal, though.

  15. nonegiven*

    Store manager: You’re doing that wrong, do it this way.

    Regional manager: You’re doing that wrong, do it [the way I was doing it before.]

    Store manager: I told you to do it this way.

    16 yo Me: I wish you and Mr regional manager would get together and decide which way you want me to do this!

  16. Phoenix Programmer*

    I am not sure how applicable Alison’s advice is in the ops field. In science it’s Soo normal to question everything that I am surprised OP is getting this feedback from collegues at all. I have personally witnessed fairly brutal back and forth over the merit of some methodology minutia during a presentation only for both to get drinks at the pub and continue the argument in a more friendly demeanor that evening. It is just so normal in my experience in Science. Same goes for asking “Why do I need to do it this way? Why not x?”

    It was a hard pivot when I went into the office where this is not ok. But in most science labs it’s very normal!

    1. Phoenix Programmer*

      Also I was not surprised to then hear that she was one of probably less than 10% of women in the field. The vaguness of the criticisms she was sharing about answering questions rings of sexism to me. It’s been my experience that confidently correcting someone’s error even nicely can get you dingrf as a woman.

  17. ChemMoose*

    Regarding the questions during presentations (and getting defensive there), I try to have a mindset that the people who ask questions *generally* are really interested in your work. They just want to understand. When I have that mindset, I’m less likely to be defensive in answering the questions. That being said, there are jerks out there, and there are times to be defensive if they are criticizing you.

    Finally, PIs in academia are HORRIBLE managers. They don’t really know how to manage people. There are exceptions out there, but there is a reason that grad school sees a ton of students with depression. I’m super excited that LW is getting her degree shortly and moving on.

  18. J.B.*

    Academia and especially PhD programs can make it so tough to assess your own work and how you should react in future jobs. There is a very strong likelihood of the Peter principle, of great individual contributors having no idea how to handle employees as people. Now that I have several more years of experience, I can keep snark and disagreement inside my head.

    For those who don’t handle clarification questions well, it often helps to go work on something for a little bit and then email or bring a follow up by in person. You assigned me this and I’m trying to apply a, b and c. Even better if you recommend a specific action at that point.

  19. Project Manager*

    Now that I have read the transcript – yes, as a manager, you absolutely must adjust your management style to the employee. One particular way to conceptualize this adjustment is called Situational Leadership. There is a book. My org expects everyone in a management or leadership role to get trained on situational leadership.

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