How to Respond to Negative Feedback


Hearing negative feedback about your work can be a real shock, especially if you thought things were going well. And all too often, people respond to that shock by handling the conversation poorly – getting defensive, not listening, or getting angry.

Those reactions won’t help the situation – even if the criticism is off-base. If nothing else, it’s in your best interest to hear what the other person is concerned about, and if you’re focused on defending yourself, you’ll miss out on the value of what’s being said. And if the person does happen to be right, blocking out their input means that you’ll deny yourself the chance to get better at what you do.

Instead, when someone gives you critical feedback, do the following:

1. Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input. The person might have a reasonable point, which you’ll never pick up on if you’re focused on how to defend yourself.

2. Don’t brush it off. Responding with a brusque “okay” and nothing more makes it look like you’re just interested in ending the conversation. At a minimum, say something like: “I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me.”

3. Don’t be defensive. You’re not in a courtroom, and your manager isn’t looking to you to defend yourself. She’s looking for signs that you’re hearing what she’s saying and taking it into account. For instance, look at the difference in these two responses:

Defensive: “I’m really upset to hear this! I was working on A and B, and if I had done what you were asking, those never would have been finished on time!”

Open/nondefensive: “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects A and B were higher priorities and was focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”

4. Use responses that indicate you’re open to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, “I didn’t realize that this has been an issue, and I’m grateful to know” can dramatically change the nature of the meeting, diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.

5. If you genuinely disagree with the criticism you’re hearing, and you’re sure it’s not just your ego getting in the way, say that. But it’s all in how you say it and what tone you use. For instance, you might say: “I hadn’t realized it was coming across that way, so I’m glad to know. From my perspective, it seems like _____.” (Fill in the blank with whatever your perspective is.)

And remember, managers who take the time to give you feedback are the ones you want to work for.

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  • Sarah

    This is great advice about a skill that many of us can improve upon, that is how to take criticism gracefully and to see it as the learning opportunity that it is.

    • Alison Green – Ask a Manager

      Thanks, Sarah! 

  • Anon

    Can you also include a bit on how to deliver negative feedback sensitively? I once had a manager bring me feedback on the floor, in front of my coworkers, while I was in the middle of a time sensitive project. When my initial reaction was not particularly positive, I was later reprimanded for the tone of my response because it was on the floor, in front of coworkers. Huh, what??? I had to point out that if they don’t want reactions in front of others that maybe it would be better to not bring things up in front of others, on the floor while I’m obviously on the phone with a client.

    • Alison Green – Ask a Manager

      Oooh, that’s a good topic for an upcoming column. And wow — I sympathize.

    • Vicki

      So, the manager decided to give you difficult feedback in front of other people, apperently thinking that you wouldn’t react because you were “on display”.

      That’s rude.

  • Vicki Brown

    > And remember, managers who take the time to give you feedback are the ones you want to work for.

    I can’t agree. I’ve had managers who made things up (lied). I’ve had managers who waited until the mandatory performance review to “give feedback” (and then biased it in terms of their poor memories.) I would want to work for a manager who gives fair and honest feedback. But not all “feedback” is fair or honest.

    • Alison Green – Ask a Manager

      Well, right, obviously you don’t want a manager who lies or doesn’t give accurate feedback. But the idea is that seeing negative feedback as a bad thing across the board is wrong — because getting accurate critical feedback is how people get better, avoid being surprised by things, etc.

    • Sarah Nowell

      And even if honest, not always useful for your life. See ‘strengths’ take on it here.

      • Vicki

        Thanks for posting that link, Sarah. It was a good article; another one for my clippings file!

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