Dealing with Feedback You Hate

feedbackIt’s pretty easy to deal with being told that you are great, that you’ve nailed the job, that you are the best thing since sliced bread.  Unfortunately, that isn’t the feedback most of us get most of the time.  We get mixed feedback.  We are told the good things that we do and the not so good things that we do.  Since the former is not difficult how to deal with, let’s talk about dealing with feedback that you hate.

Reacting to Feedback

There are common (normal/human) ways that people react to feedback:

  • Rationalize–“well, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” or “they don’t really know how much I care or how hard I work or what a good job I do.”
  • Diminishment–“compared to all the good things I do, this isn’t important.”
  • Disagree–either in your head, or worse, out loud
  • Overreact–hear only the bad feedback, and then not put it in perspective; sometimes, people even leave over negative feedback–a serious overreaction!
  • Accept–agree with the feedback and accept it as valid–this can be good or bad, depending on the feedback
  • Obsessing–not being able to let it go, thinking about it all the time
  • Listen–take it in, hear it objectively.  This is the best reaction, because it gives you the most runway for a reaction.  (Always thank people for feedback.  Despite what you may think, giving tough feedback is hard.  You need to keep that communication open.)

One of the most important things to remember with feedback is that it is correct.  It is an accurate expression of someone’s OPINION of your performance.  You can tell yourself that that person’s opinion isn’t important.  You can tell yourself that that person doesn’t know enough about your performance to be completely correct.  But you can’t say that s/he isn’t right, because s/he has expressed his/her opinion, not a universal truth.  You need to ask yourself, why does the person have that opinion.  Look at the list of normal reactions, above.

When you come up with your response on “why” the person thinks what s/he does, which of the reactions are you having?  Take a “that’s an interesting opinion” approach.  Look at your interactions with the person.  Filter out everything else.  What/when/how does the person see you?  Does the person know you outside of a particular kind of exchange? How did you meet?  Do you listen to the person?  Do you treat the person with respect? Do you make the person’s life easier or harder?

Now, What’cha Gonna Do About It?

The initial reaction is one thing.  Hopefully, you’re able to listen to it and to take it in as an interesting opinion.  Then, you need to figure out what to do about it.

I was once reorganized into a new department.  It was a department completely outside of anything I had ever done.  I also outranked all my peers.  Let me say that again.  My peers were sitting there in that department, doing their job and plotting their career paths and suddenly I was reorganized into the middle of their career paths.  I outranked them (read a step closer to their next step than they were).  From their perspective, I knew NOTHING about the work of their department.  They didn’t ask for me, they didn’t want me, and they didn’t particularly like me.  As a part of my first assignment in that job, I was evaluating executive feedback instruments.  As a part of that assignment, I had them fill out a feedback form on me (within 3 weeks of starting in this job).  I got the WORST feedback that I had ever gotten.  I had had good feedback and not so good feedback in the past, but this time, I was completely blown away by the feedback I received.

I went through all the normal reactions (see list above):

  • I rationalized–they don’t know me.  They don’t like me.  They are jealous.
  • I diminished–their opinion doesn’t count.  My boss’ opinion is the only one that counts. I don’t care what they think.
  • I disagreed–luckily in my head.  Here are the reasons they are wrong: 1), 2), 3), etc.
  • I overreacted–yes, I did.  I could only see the negative in what they said.  If there was any positive, I certainly didn’t see it (and I don’t remember it now).  I thought, “I’ll just leave . . .” I was angry.
  • I obsessed–luckily, I got the feedback on a Friday.  I might have had to call in sick if I hadn’t had a couple of days to cool down.  I thought about it non-stop.

Luckily, I had a lot of knowledge about how you should react to feedback.  Notice that didn’t stop me from the reactions listed above.  It did, however, help me come full circle.  No matter what I thought about their opinion.  No matter how much I understood about why they might have given me the (unfair, I thought) feedback that they did. I understood that their opinion was their opinion and it was right.   After I cooled down, I decided to use the experience to experiment with how to turn the situation around (because I sure had a situation to turn around!).

I put together a response.  I listed all the things that I had heard from the feedback.  I literally put together a presentation that listed the questions and the responses.  I presented it neutrally (as if it was about someone else).  (NOTE:  if it hadn’t been an evaluation of a feedback instrument, I probably would have done this individually, not with all of them together).  I came up with responses to the feedback.  I was rated low in communicating–I came up with a list of the ways I would communicate in the future.  Then I asked them if these would be adequate if I actually did it.  I took the top three most negative (I don’t remember what they were any more), and then I came up with suggested improvements.  It was hard (because I didn’t really agree with the feedback–it didn’t match what I had heard before).  I focused on being objective.  For those things that I really didn’t agree with to the point that I didn’t have any “improvement suggestions,” I just didn’t deal with.

My reaction got their attention.  I think they knew, to a certain extent, that they had vented.  They agreed to my suggested improvements–or backed off some of them.  It defused some of their anger at the situation.  I changed the situation from a them v. me to a “let’s address how to make this situation better.”

Now the Even Harder Part

Once people give you feedback, they expect to see changes.  Small changes, as long as they see them–as long as they perceive that you’re trying–are enough.  That means, somehow or other you need to let them know that you’re trying.  That you want to make the situation better.  That you appreciate, value and respect their feedback.  People give you a lot of benefit of the doubt if they think you are trying, especially in response to something they feel a bit guilty about.  Experiment.  You won’t do it right the first time every time, but once you learn how to do it, you can get good at it.

Managing people’s perceptions, accepting and acting on feedback, are huge tools for a successful career.


Filed under Career Development, Communication, Feedback, Personal Change

2 responses to “Dealing with Feedback You Hate

  1. Tania Hotmer

    Feedback is crucial to growth. I appreciate candid feedback from my peers and manager. I want the “bad” as well as the “good” so I know what I need to improve on. Like you, I believe the opinions of others do matter Thanks for the post.

    • Tania,

      I absolutely agree–how do you know how others are experiencing you without feedback? At the same time, even for those of us who KNOW that, it can be hard to take.

      Thanks for your comment.


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