Getting negative feedback is never easy—even if you know it’s coming. Even worse, being blindsided when you think you’re doing a great job can be a major confidence hit. But here’s the thing: Pretty much everyone gets constructive criticism at some point during their career. This included the most successful people you know. In fact, the best managers are ones who are able to let you know in a friendly but firm way exactly how you can improve, take your work to the next level, and better manage your responsibilities. In a sense, getting negative feedback can actually be a good thing, even though it might not feel like it at the time.
Here, we asked HR pros to tell us exactly how to handle the moments, days, and weeks after receiving negative feedback, plus how to take it all in stride.
1. Don’t take it personally.
Yes, you’ve probably heard this advice before, but there’s a reason for that. “Often, employees take negative feedback to mean their leader doesn't like them,” says Krishna Powell, executive coach and HR consultant. Most of the time, this is not the case at all. “Feedback is given because your leader sees you have the ability to do better, to become greater, or to master your skillset,” she notes. When you think of it that way, it’s actually sort of like a compliment. Of course, that doesn’t make it easier to hear, but focusing on the fact that your boss knows you can perform at a higher lever can help you see that negative feedback is actually not the worst thing in the world.
“The most important thing to remember is feedback gives the receiver power. Power to manage perceptions because feedback can tell you how people view you. Power to become better or stronger because feedback reveals your area of weakness. And feedback can give you power to control your career because it can redirect the path you're on.” It’s natural to be bummed out at first, but with some mental reframing, you can get to a much more positive place.
2. Make sure you’re totally clear on the issue.
Most managers don’t enjoy giving negative feedback, so a conversation about your performance that’s less than glowing might be on the shorter side. Add into that your potential emotional response, and there’s a lot of room for miscommunication. “Sometimes it's difficult to listen and to retain everything you hear in a meeting when your emotions may be off-kilter,” explains Jana Tulloch, C.P.H.R., HR Manager for Develop Intelligence.
This is a good opportunity to practice active listening to make sure you and your boss are understanding each other clearly. “Try restating the issue back to your manager to confirm you're on the same page about the issue and what is expected going forward. This provides an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings, as well as ask any questions,” she says. The last thing you want is to be working away on correcting the wrong issue.
3. If you disagree, do so with tact.
It’s a common response to immediately feel defensive after receiving negative feedback, and the truth is that mistakes do happen. In feedback situations, however, they don’t happen that often, so it’s important to make sure you’re definitely being critiqued in error before saying that you believe the feedback you’re getting is wrong. First, be completely sure that you understand the feedback that’s been given and the reasoning behind it. If you’re confident that the negative feedback was given in error and you decide to say something about it, “it is imperative that you push back with diplomacy and tact,” says Tawanda Johnson, CEO of RKL Resources, a national Human Resources Consulting firm. “Supervisors are often juggling many hats and sometimes things fall through the cracks. They are human. Strong supervisors will own up to their mistakes and will thank the employee for bringing something to their attention.”
4. Show initiative ASAP.
If the feedback is not wrong, the best thing you can do moving forward is come up with a plan to fix the problem. Take initiative and show you care about improving. “If you want to continue to grow in your career, either within your current company or with another, you should respond back to your supervisor within a couple of days,” says Dorris Hollingsworth, President of Evergreen HR Group, an HR and business consulting firm in the Atlanta market. “Ideally, you will have some time to think about the feedback and identify one or two things you can do to address the issues raised.” For example, if you’ve been told you need to improve your communication style, then you might talk to a peer about how they communicate on their work projects and then compare that information to what you normally do. Then, share your findings with your boss. “Let your supervisor know that you have looked at other ways to communicate with a team and plan to adopt some of the methods in your work,” says Hollingsworth. “Lastly, put it into practice.”
5. Think about the long game.
It’s a good idea to follow up in a more long-term way, as well, since often it takes some work to make real change in habits. “After 30 to 60 days, I always recommend people follow up on the negative feedback they have received,” says Powell. “You should say something like, ‘I have given a great deal of thought to the feedback you have given me and I have made the following changes,’” she suggests. This shows that you took the feedback to heart and importantly, that you care about improving. Chances are, if you’re committed to making a change, some very positive feedback awaits in your next performance review.