Negative feedback can be valuable because it allows us to monitor our performance and alerts us to important changes we need to make. And leaders who ask for critical feedback are seen as more effective by superiors, employees and peers, while those who seek primarily positive feedback are rated lower in effectiveness.
But processing and acting on negative feedback is not always easy. It can make us defensive, angry, and self-conscious, which subsequently impairs our effectiveness. What’s more, we can’t take all feedback we receive at face value.
Here are five actions to help you hear critical feedback openly and calmly; gather insights; and make improvements.
1. Don’t rush to react.
Where so many of us pressure ourselves to push past our emotions and respond right away, highly self-aware people gave themselves days or even weeks to bounce back from difficult feedback before deciding what to do next.
Specifically, many reported actively working to change the way they saw the feedback — they’d think of upsetting or surprising information as helpful and productive data — something psychologists call cognitive reappraisal. One simple yet effective reappraisal tool is affect labeling, or putting our feelings into words. For example, after a critical performance review, we might simply acknowledge, “I feel blindsided and a little scared.”
Another technique is self-affirmation. Taking a few minutes to remind ourselves of another important aspect of our identity, besides the one being threatened, lessens our physical response to threat and helps us be more open to critical feedback. When we see the bigger picture, it helps us put feedback in its proper perspective. Then and only then should we decide how to respond.
2. Get more data.
It can be disorienting to learn that people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. Especially when we hear something new, it’s usually a good idea to ask a few trustworthy sources whether they’ve noticed the same behavior. Not only does this give us more detail about what we are doing to create a certain impression, it helps us avoid overcorrecting based on one person’s opinion.
3. Find a harbinger.
Even when we’ve significantly improved a certain behavior, it doesn’t mean that the people around us will automatically notice. It can be harder to change the perceptions of our behavior than the behavior itself. And if we spend energy improving based on feedback from our colleagues, but those same colleagues don’t notice, it can be discouraging.
For this reason, I also work with my coaching clients on the “public relations” aspects of their behavior. Shortly after receiving their feedback report, we choose one highly visible and symbolic action that will show how serious they are about changing.
4. Don’t be a lonely martyr.
Getting critical feedback can feel like an exercise in isolation. If anything we should pull people who tell us the truth even closer. In this regard, critical feedback can be an excellent excuse to reset our relationships — and with the right approach, our biggest critics can become our greatest champions.
5. Remember that change is just one option.
Most successful, ambitious people probably believe that when a behavior is limiting their success, they should work to change it. However, the best way to manage our weaknesses isn’t always clear cut. Sometimes feedback can illuminate flaws that are tightly woven into the very fabric of who we are.
Sometimes the best response to critical feedback is to admit our flaws — first to ourselves, and then to others — while setting expectations for how we are likely to behave. When we let go of the things we cannot change, it frees up the energy to focus on changing the things we can.