The brief but satisfying pleasure of not taking feedback well at all

When emotion talks before reason.
When emotion talks before reason.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Dejong
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There is, without question, a right way to accept negative feedback at work. It involves self-awareness, emotional control, and the maturity to step back from the situation and separate the substance of the critique from the emotions it stirs.

But all those things are so hard, and so boring!

Yes, critical feedback is a vital leadership skill necessary for growth. Yes, spitting back your most immediate, visceral reaction to an unwelcome piece of criticism might rightly give you a reputation as unprofessional, hostile, or unemployable. But it’s easy to imagine that, at least for a split second, it would feel amazing.

For those of us too sensible (or timid) to embrace the consequences of living without filters, reading other people’s knee-jerk reactions to their critics can provide that thrill vicariously at least—and provide the cold shock of just how embarrassingly ugly an immature response to feedback looks. As a Quartz At Work holiday gift, here are some of the best worst responses to criticism we’ve heard about.

Lee Israel, writer

A former B-list celebrity biographer, writer Lee Israel turned to forgery after her legitimate career stalled, an experience she detailed in her memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which is now a movie starring Melissa McCarthy).

While the claims of a self-confessed fabulist should be taken with many grains of salt, Israel’s description of handling professional disappointment is delicious. When big-name literary agents start ignoring her calls—typically a not-so-subtle sign that one is no longer a priority—Israel takes matters into her own hands.

“I’d make a second call, with just a slight change in attitude and voice, identifying myself often as Nora Ephron,” she writes in her memoir. “The erstwhile conferee would come on in a trice, usually with a warm, “Hiya Nora,” whereupon I shouted ‘Star fucker! Is that one word or two?’ and hung up.”

This tactic makes for a good story, but is not sustainable: According to Israel, she had to give it up after a call from Ephron’s lawyers.

Richard Ford, writer

Novelist Alice Hoffman wrote a critical review in the New York Times of Richard Ford’s 1986 book The Sportswriter. Ford and his wife took one of Hoffman’s novels into their backyard, shot it, and mailed the pieces to her. (This anecdote was highlighted in LitHub’s excellent Book Marks blog, which has a roundup of famous literary saltiness.)

David (pseudonym)

In an op-ed for Inc., consultant Justin Barisio, author of the book EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, described dressing down an employee he called “David,” who had made a major error. Barisio noted as an aside, with the benefit of hindsight (the incident had occurred a few years earlier), that he “could have delivered [the feedback] better.” David’s response: “You know, you’re the kind of manager the rest of us hate.”

Barisio’s point was that people should accept feedback better than this employee did. Maybe. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself quietly rooting for David.

Ahmass Fakahany, Altamarea Group CEO

New York Times food critic Pete Wells gave the Upper East Side French restaurant Vaucluse one star in a biting 2015 review.

“A critic could run out of new ways to express disappointment in Altamarea Group restaurants if Altamarea didn’t keep coming up with new ways to disappoint,” Wells wrote.

Ahmass Fakahany, a former Merrill Lynch executive and owner of the restaurant group that manages Vaucluse and an array of Italian restaurants like Manhattan’s Marea and Al Molo in Hong Kong, responded with an open letter skewering Wells on Altamarea’s website.

“The New York Times Dining review section is at its lowest point,” Fakahany wrote. “Congratulations. You have managed to do a fantastic job of getting it there.” After a detailed critique of Wells’s methods and an invitation to “Please don’t be so desperate as you are,” he finished up with his own rating system for the critic: “Effort/Credibility: zero stars. Food Knowledge: one star. Creating Confusion: 4 stars.”

Alain de Botton, writer

In another gem unearthed by Book Marks, Caleb Crain accused Alain de Botton of “mean-spiritedness” in a New York Times review of de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Unencumbered by self-awareness, de Botton left a response on Crain’s personal blog that read, in part, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”

Bill Lawrence, “Scrubs” creator

In 2011, New York Magazine theater critic Scott Brown panned actor and writer Zach Braff’s new play All New People. In response, Braff’s friend and former colleague Bill Lawrence, creator of the sitcom Scrubs, in which Braff starred, wrote an open letter to Brown to “indulge every bitter writer’s fantasy. I’m going to review your review.”

“Scott Brown’s latest work opens with an Ally McBeal reference, a joke that hasn’t been fresh for a solid twenty years,” Lawrence began. “It then descends into a kind of silent dog whistle that only pretentious tool bags can hear: ‘hubristically deliberate bid … for the Exhausted Aughts … emo simulacrum of actual feeling.’ Scott, do you wear a monocle?”

The letter got more caustically personal as it went on, at one point suggesting the critic “get laid” to relieve his frustrations. The magazine printed Lawrence’s diatribe along with Brown’s response, which kicked off thusly:

Dear Bill,

I do, in fact, wear a monocle. Not by choice.

At 6, I contracted a rare eye disease that left me half-blind and hideous. The monocle helps correct my eyesight — but, unfortunately, not my revolting deformity. Also, I’m told I give off a Lovecraftian fetor that makes women swoon, and not in the I-am-now-having-an-orgasm way.

The letter continued on like this for several paragraphs and closed with a simple postscript: “P.S.: I’m sorry I didn’t like your friend’s play.” And with that, the feedback-to-feedback-on-feedback loop was complete.