Using negative feedback

In January, my blog The art of giving feedback looked at the topic of providing actionable feedback on performance to your team members. The post suggested all feedback should be actionable and most should be positive. However, it is inevitable that some feedback has to be critical in nature and ways to deliver this to achieve the maximum effect were discussed.

What was not discussed in January, the focus of this post, is how we can make use of negative feedback directed to us! Every manager and team leader has a supervisory role that requires them to offer feedback to their ‘team’ (or direct reports), whilst also being part of their manager’s team making them the recipient of feedback from their ‘bosses’ as well as from peers and in more open organisations subordinates. In short we all give feedback and we all receive feedback!

Receiving positive and constructive feedback is a pleasant experience that lifts our spirits and increases motivation and commitment; it’s easy and enjoyable. Making positive use of negative feedback is more challenging, particularly if the feedback is not well constructed, but is also the key to real improvements in your performance. You need to listen then act (see more on Active Listening).

The starting point is to accept that the negative feedback with openness and gratitude, even if you do not agree with it. You must keep in mind this type of feedback is intended to relay information that may be useful to you as long as you hear what is being said. What you then choose to do with the information is your decision, to be made later; but before you can decide on a course of action, you have to have listened to, and understood, the full message. After you have listened to the feedback say, ‘thank you’ and ‘I appreciate you taking the time to bring this to my attention’.

But be careful, unfair and overly negative feedback is used as a tool by bad managers and workplace bullies to demean and control others and requires a more robust approach discussed in Dealing with difficult people. You should not put up with this kind of attack, if you do, it will persist. However, even whilst ‘pushing back’ against this type of attack, there may still be opportunities to learn and grow – it’s sweet revenge on the bully to be able to use their ‘put-downs’ to help you advance your career.

So regardless of the intentions of the person providing the criticisms, the ways to turn negative feedback into a positive learning opportunity include:

1. Own it. Accept the feedback and make any necessary changes. Do this by turning the feedback into a list of actionable items and write down a SMARTER solution (see more on SMARTER) for each piece of negative feedback. Then work your plan.

2. Assume good intentions. Don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that the person providing negative feedback is ‘out to get you’, and remember that they are (or should be) criticising your work, not you as a person. Once you’re able to do this, it is much easier to make positive changes.

3. Clarify expectations and goals. Use the negative feedback as a chance to clarify your manager’s expectations and as an aid to understanding your role.

4. Build rapport. Use the negative feedback loop as an opportunity to bond with your manager. Their job is to help you develop, whilst yours is to bring results. Schedule regular meetings to discuss your progress and goals; get to know your manager and understand what he or she values most in an employee. This is your chance to show that you’re open to change and capable of growth, and is a great opportunity to show that you are mature, cooperative, and able to make necessary changes.

5. Get a mentor. Use this as an opportunity to find a mentor or strengthen your relationships with co-workers. If you’re in a situation where you need help or support—this is a great time to build those relationships.

6. Use reflective learning. This as a good time for some serious self-reflection. Use the opportunity to think about all the ways in which you can improve your behaviour and attitude.

7. Appreciate the attention. Remember that all constructive feedback (even negative feedback) is a sign of interest and a sign that people want to help you do better.

None of these ideas are particularly difficult to implement once you make the initial transition from seeing negative feedback as an ‘attack on you’ and reframe the criticism as an opportunity to learn and improve your performance. Achieving this needs ‘persilience’ but is well worth the effort (even with bad managers) – the alternative is to become negative and defensive which can only lead to dissatisfaction and eventually leaving or losing your job.

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