Career Trends: How to make negative feedback work for you

5 min read

Edition: October 14th, 2021
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

You can’t avoid getting tough criticism sometimes, instead of trying to prevent it try finding the silver lining. (Image Credit: Shutterstock)
  • Excerpts from article by Aytekin Tank, published on

At its core, feedback is meant to be helpful. In practice, receiving feedback is stressful. We dread those annual reviews. Once the day arrives, we tense up, our palms sweat and our hearts start to race. It doesn’t stop at the physiological responses as we put up mental barriers, too.

When we’re confronted with negative feedback, our ego is so threatened that our brains limit incoming information. We regulate to avoid taking in harsh critiques.

Adam Grant, New York Times, organisational psychologist

Faced with the prospect of negative feedback, we’ll also change our social habits. According to research, people go so far as to avoid colleagues who tend to give them more constructive criticism. But it’s totally natural to fear negative feedback.

How our brain processes criticism

Two portions of our brains dictate how we emotionally process criticism:

  1. The amygdala, that determines what’s important and helps us form emotional memories.
  2. The medial prefrontal cortex, that regulates how we react to emotional stimuli, including criticism.

The amygdala also plays a key role in our fight or flight response, which is why receiving negative feedback can feel threatening on the most primitive level.

But luckily, there are ways to translate that feedback into a positive and performance-boosting experience.

Here are some tips for keeping an open mind and extracting the most value from a negative review

1. Pre-empt negative feedback  

  • As soon as you catch wind of a client, colleague or manager’s displeasure, take a proactive stance and try to determine what went wrong.
  • When you initiate the conversation, you mentally prepare yourself for the constructive criticism that follows, dampening your body’s fight or flight response.
  • By opening yourself up to constructive criticism, you also help to cultivate an environment where feedback is welcome.
  • The best way to create an atmosphere in which coaching is shared is not to put someone else in the hot seat, but to volunteer to take it yourself.
  • You can encourage others, whether bosses, colleagues, or subordinates, by asking for their observations about your performance.

2. Slow down and ask questions

  • There is a lot we can learn from user-generated reviews.
  • At times, it can also feel overwhelmingly negative.
  • When people are inspired to contribute reviews, they tend to be emotional, for better or worse.
  • On the other end, as business owners, difficult feedback can really sting.
  • Your instinct may be to reply immediately, but instead, slow down.
  • First, read the review. Then reread the review. Reread it again. On your third take, start looking for the value.
  • Wise counsel, regardless of whether you’re in-person or online. Slow down and dig deeper before going with your knee-jerk reaction.

3. Think of feedback as a learning tool

  • To make it an easier pill to swallow.
  • A learning orientation is critical for tolerating negative feedback and strongly influences how you give and receive it.
  • Think of constructive criticism like an objective diagnosis — you can use it both to understand what went wrong and figure out how to improve.
  • The more you discover, the better you can evaluate, determine if you need to gather more information and decide on a path forward.

4. Separate the criticism from the self

  • It’s easy to mistake feedback for a judgment about who we are, but that’s not helpful.
  • It’s crucial to separate criticism from our sense of self.
  • This will disengage the strong sense of self-injury that often goes with criticism and will make it easier to respond.
  • It also removes the emotional impact of negative feedback, which can lead to self-sabotaging rumination, and frees us up to focus on bettering our performance.

5. Acknowledge the need for improvement

  • There is great momentum to be found in acknowledging your need for improvement and dedicating yourself to doing better.
  • Once you start making progress, your momentum will only be renewed.
  • If you get off to a rocky start with a particular client or project, not all is lost.
  • Take the time to step back, identify the pain point and figure out what you can do to improve.
  • Even if you can’t win MVP, you can still aim for MIP and garner goodwill and loyalty along the way.

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions after receiving a bad review. But it’s also impossible to avoid messing up or performing less than optimal on occasions. We’re human, not robots. Our users are humans too, and we can’t control their subjective experiences.

Just remember: Often, the people who criticise us end up being our biggest advocates, as long as we rise to the occasion and deal with their feedback head-on.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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