How to deal with negative feedback, especially when you don’t agree with it

Not like this.
Not like this.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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This question originally appeared on Quora: How do you deal with negative feedback? Answer by Christian Bonilla, analytics software designer, author of “Smart Like How: The Hidden Side of Career Success” and blogger at Smart Like How@smartlikehow.

I remember getting lots of advice on my first day in orientation at my first job after college, but one thing that stuck out to me among everything else was the directive, “Run toward feedback!” My new company stressed this point several times throughout the first few days. It sounds reasonable on the surface: successful people are eager for guidance on how to be more effective. But over time, I realized that just “running to feedback” doesn’t tell you what to do after you get it.

Logically speaking, since everybody makes mistakes, some of the feedback others give you must also be mistaken. Blindly following mistaken feedback would then also be a mistake (albeit one for which you have some cover as a new hire). There wasn’t anything in the onboarding packet about how to respond to feedback, much less what to do when you disagree with it. It almost implies that you should follow 100% of the feedback you get, which I think most people are bright enough not to do. But disagreeing with your superiors can be intimidating, and like Michael Scott driving into the lake, we are all prone to following dubious advice even when we disagree.

I believe that everyone should be an active participant in a review of their performance, but not all ways of doing so are equally effective. The self-reflection that you engage in after receiving negative feedback should, among other things, make you seek to understand where the other person is coming from and whether you honestly agree with their assessment.

Flavors of negative feedback

If only orientation programs told new hires how to disagree with their superiors effectively. I have yet to hear about that being covered in a new-hire onboarding session, so I decided to dissect the basic types of negative feedback and how to respond to them most effectively. In each quadrant, I’ve added a couple of examples of the topics you’ll typically find there:

feedback image

At its most basic, feedback can either be directed at you as an employee or your work, and the person delivering the feedback may or may not be open to discussion on the topic. It usually isn’t too hard to tell whether or not someone is open to debate their feedback. Comments like, “You need to pick up the pace,” or “This isn’t client-ready,” are not usually invitations to debate the point no matter how much you might disagree at the time. At the far other end of the spectrum, mentoring conversations, performance reviews, and goal-setting discussions can only be productive if they involve a give-and-take between both parties. In between are the gray areas in which the right way to respond depends on the particular circumstances of the situation.

Questions to ask yourself before responding to negative feedback

Assuming you’ve picked the right time to respond, there are a few questions to ask yourself any time you receive negative feedback (er, I mean “growth opportunities”) from your manager. By first pausing to consider these points, you’ll be in better position to have a productive conversation and get to the outcome you want. Naturally, the first thing to recognize is whether you agree or disagree with the assessment.

When you disagree with the feedback:

Before your debate muscles reflexively kick in, pause and ask yourself these two questions before you respond to negative feedback with which you disagree:

1. Does the person giving the feedback have the complete picture?

Usually you are the authority on your own work and understand best why you made the decisions you did. Some of your choices might seem questionable from a distance until you explain the context and tradeoffs behind them. Other times, the feedback may carry a personal sting, and you need to de-personalize the situation before responding. A while ago, I received some delicately worded feedback to increase my availability and presence at the office. I was irritated by the comment, since my wife and I had just had our first child and I was doing the balancing act that all new, working parents do (less time at the office, more time working at home at nights). But I calmed down and realized they had probably forgotten that I took no paternity leave so that I could flex my schedule more often. Reminding them of that fact was all it took. The key is, no matter the situation, back up your statements with real context and facts rather than emotions.

2. Has the feedback been consistent?

Without meaning to, people give inconsistent feedback all the time. The more off-the-cuff the remark, the higher the odds of it contradicting something else that you’ve heard. Remember that people usually don’t realize when they are doing this, and that their positions may change significantly over time for good reasons. Still, it’s incumbent upon you to point out to them when you’ve gotten conflicting messages. I’ve had this happen to me when I began reporting to a new manager mid-review cycle, and I’ve had it happen when the same manager was inconsistent from one period to the next. This can be frustrating, so the best thing that you can do is ask your managers to explain why they’re changing course—and remind them that they’re doing so.

When you agree with the feedback:

Congrats, that’s mighty big of you. If you agree on an area in which you or your work could stand improvement, there are two other questions toward which you should quickly pivot:

1. Is now the time to ask for resources?

Negative feedback can be a golden opportunity to ask for things and get them, though people often miss the window. For example, say your manager points out a skill area that he or she would like to see you develop. If you agree, that may be the right time to put together a business case for having the company sponsor you to take a class or get a certification. I’ve written before about all the incredible resources available for learning while working full-time, if you’re looking for ideas. If external training isn’t the solution, it may be contributing to another project or getting some other new kind of exposure within the company to aid in your personal development. Maybe you just need more time. The point is that you’re all on the same team, and you might be surprised at how willing your organization is to help you.

2. What’s the next checkpoint?

Ok, you agree with the feedback. What now? How can you prove that you’re making progress? Schedule another meeting, another product demo, another review session…or something else. This gets harder as the feedback becomes more abstract. If you receive a “needs improvement” on something like communication skills for example, that can be a hard thing to prove you’ve gotten better at. Think hard about how you can show progress, and proactively be the one who recommends the next steps. You might as well take ownership of the conversation when you’re talking about where you need to improve.

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