Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work

It goes against our nature to shout "Hooray!" when someone calls us out. But studies show that people who solicit and accept feedback are more effective leaders and more successful at work. Here's how to take the sting out of feedback and make it work for you.

Experience tells us that negative feedback associated with negative emotions, often in the form of an angry customer or a peeved colleague. No wonder we tend to recoil from the barbs of criticism. But it’s time to toughen up.

That’s not to say you should become totally impervious to negative feedback. That’d be like ignoring your car’s temperature gauge: It holds too much useful information to simply ignore. But you do need a degree of resiliency and the ability to filter the junk data from the good data in order to improve.

There’s good reason to consider how you respond to feedback. Research shows people that are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful—and those that can’t are less so. A recent study found that 46% of newly hired employees will fail within 18 months. Of those that fail, 26% do so because they can’t accept feedback, according the study, which was conducted by leadership training firm Leadership IQ.

"Being able to accept feedback requires a modicum of critical self-awareness," says Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ and author of Hiring for Attitude. "If you are of the belief that you never make mistakes, you probably have a narcissistic personality disorder, and it’s going to be really hard to give you feedback. Somebody who has enough self-awareness to recognize they might need feedback, that’s the person that’s going to say ‘Even when I’m on my best game, there’s always something I could’ve done to be better.’"

Murphy says that high performers are often high performers specifically because they’re good at accepting feedback and using it as fuel for personal growth. He cites Peyton Manning as a good example: "One of the things that makes Peyton Manning effective is his critical self-awareness. He throws an interception, he knows it was a stupid throw the millisecond that ball left his hand. And he’s open to the feedback. He spends hours studying the film. And the interesting thing is that high-performers are way more open to feedback than the low-performers are. It’s the low-performers, when you ask them, ‘What’s a time that you received feedback?’ who say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t really get much feedback.’ Really?"

The connection between performance and responsiveness to feedback goes all the way up the chain of command. According to a study by leadership training firm Zenger Folkman, people who ask for feedback are the most effective leaders. "People who are at the bottom 10% in terms of their willingness to ask for feedback—their leadership effectiveness scores were at the 17th percentile," says Joseph Folkman, president of Zenger Folkman and author of The Power of Feedback: 35 Principles for Turning Feedback from Others into Personal and Professional Change. "But the people who were at the top 10%, who were absolutely willing to ask for feedback, their leadership effectiveness scores were at the 83rd percentile. It’s like the worse they are as a leader, the less likely they are to ask for feedback because they’re afraid they’ll hear the truth, and the better people are the more they keep asking ‘How am I doing? Would you change anything?’"

Alas, negative feedback is an inevitable part of life. As Murphy puts it: "Nobody who’s doing anything worthwhile is going to skate through a situation without feedback." So buck up, stop letting criticism sting you, and start using it to your advantage. Here are some tips.

Get Perspective
How good you are at accepting and using negative feedback is greatly determined by how you view it. If it’s viewed as condemnation of your character, it will have a crippling effect and be harder to process, says Murphy. "If every ounce of feedback becomes personalized, if it becomes viewed as an indictment of who you are, you’re existence and reason for living, then it’s going to be tough to accept feedback. But if feedback is viewed as one more point of data to assimilate, to analyze, to allow you to make a better decision, then it’s not so emotional. And that’s one of the major lessons about feedback: people who are best at it, de-personalize it. They view it as information. That’s all it is."

When you view feedback as valuable data for self-improvement, you start to seek it out, not just endure it. "The person who says, there’s always a better way to do things, there’s always other opportunities out there—it tends to make them less emotionally caught up in any one bit of feedback because no one bit of feedback is the end of the world."

The alternative to embracing feedback would be to go careening through life without adequate data-points: "The analogy for me is GPS," says Folkman. "It takes at least three signals, and usually four, to accurately predict your locations. If people think their own perceptions are accurate, they’re wrong."

Once you find value in negative feedback, you’ll be on the lookout for the useful nuggets of information, even if it’s delivered in a harsh manner. In order to find the useful bits, Murphy uses a model to break down the layers of a conversation into facts, interpretations, reactions, and ends—or what he calls, F.I.R.E.

As an example, Murphy says, consider if your boss calls you into his office because he found errors in a letter you wrote. "Your boss says, ‘I found two typos and now it makes me question whether or not you pay any attention at this job. Based on that I’m starting to get pretty irritated. You know what? Going forward I want to proofread every single thing you ever send out.’"

Murphy suggests stepping back from the conversation so you can analyze the feedback, paying special attention to the facts, because those are often what get overshadowed by emotional feedback. "There were two typos, which is a legitimate nugget of information," says Murphy. "Based on that, the boss took an interpretive leap and no longer trusts you."

The lesson to learn: Your boss may be frustrated and angry, but that’s not what you should address. Rather, it’s the errors you made and how you will avoid doing the same in the future.

One’s ability to listen to negative feedback without getting fixated on the additional information it’s often packaged with is key. "What the most effective accepters of constructive feedback do is listen more carefully to hear the one fact in there. In that sense, I think you can call it thick skin. They almost have a mental shield. They compartmentalize it, take what’s useful, and move on."

Murphy thinks this ability goes hand in hand with a sense of self-control that successful people have. Rather than investing a lot of time and energy by reacting emotionally, they focus on the treatable affliction. "They feel like they are very much in control of their life, of their career and the don’t spend their time ruminating why their boss is so lousy at giving feedback," says Murphy. So even if your boss is a hot head, he probably still has something to say that’s worth noting.

Be Confident
Of course, it’s not enough to simply say, "Be more confident." However, it’s worth nothing that a big factor in someone’s openness to feedback is self-confidence—and high performers have that. "They understand that the feedback they’re getting is not an indictment of them personally," says Murphy. "Oftentimes, somebody who takes feedback but then falls apart afterward, they’ve interpreted this as being damning of them as a person. It’s not ‘I threw an interception.’ It’s, ‘I’m a terrible person, I’m a lousy quarterback, I’m no good at this job.’"

And it’s something that Murphy says employers should look for when hiring. "I call it psychological hardiness: This is a person that is going to recognize this was a shot deal. It’s a mistake to be sure, but it’s a mistake she can absolutely fix and do something about."

Collaborate & Learn
As social animals, people need to work collaboratively, and feedback helps sustain the flow of our interactions. "Most of our lives, we want people to collaborate and cooperate with us," says Folkman. "So that ability to engage others, to get them motivated and excited, requires a real sensitivity to how others respond to you. And a person that is great at collecting feedback, does much better."

Of course, above all, it’s important that we do something with this feedback. Otherwise, it’s all for naught. What’s great about humans, says Folkman, is that they learn. "If people never receive the feedback, then they never learn. But if you let people know and they hear it over and over again, they learn and they get better."

Use Feedback to Change
Many people want to change their behavior based on negative feedback they’ve received. However, it’s not enough to say you want to change, says Folkman. "In order to change, there needs to be some follow-up. You need to really tie this thing down and make it stick. So once you set a goal, it needs to be specific, it needs to be measurable, it needs to be actionable."

For example, if you set the goal to be "better person," it’s not likely to happen, because it’s such a nebulous objective, says Folkman. "You’ve got to have it laid out. ‘I’m going to say seven positive things a day to people.’ That would be measurable. ‘I’m going to greet everybody in the morning with a smile.’ Then you have to measure yourself. What’s amazing is if you make it measurable and there’s some follow-up, and if you can involve other people, it really helps you to change."

[Image: Flickr user Richard Taylor]

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  • Jb5455

    I have found it is better to analyze why the person is offering critical feedback before you respond.  Some things to consider: the person may be feeling pressure from higher ups, they could be unhappy with themselves or their position, they may feel insecure and need the "bully" mentality to feel better about themselves.  Work is like a game, you need to study your adversaries and find out what makes them tick.  And then there is the other possibility that they were promoted to a management position due to time on the job, nepotism, or having a particular skill but in reality have no idea how to manage people.  I have come across that many times...

  • Sharonw

    Really interesting article, and great advice.  However, as others have mentioned, I too, am a sensitive person, and if the criticism is delivered in an aggressive manner, my tendency is to take it personally, and think that I am a "bad" person.  I would like to receive more suggestions on how to become thicker-skinned, all around; not just in the professional arena, but in social situations, as well.

  • Keep It Simple

    I like the article. Well written, and on an excellent topic. Nevertheless, after reading the book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking" by Susan Cain, I evaluate self-help articles like these, in a different light. Cliches like "it's time to toughen up" don't cut it for me anymore. "Psychological hardiness" can be expressed in different ways. Long live sensitive responses and recoil!

  • A.H

    Curious about how to handle my situation. I have 20+ yrs experience and am an award-winning designer working now in a large Int'l. My manager is a small-minded, bureaucratic bully whose office is across Int'l borders so he is, in effect, nearly uncontrollable. He willingly twists facts to not only give himself credit not due to him but also to deflect blame away from himself even when it is squarely his doing; he falsifies 'support' to show how others supposedly view our work; yet gets away with this behavior as his manager seems either blind or uncaring. He also uses veiled threats to keep everyone in line including telling me I should just quit twice in front of our country manager and our HR manager, pushes his 'favorites' to the fore even when they're incompetent [3x now] and is the most vindictive person with whom I've had the mispleasure of having to work. This is an untenable situation and not just for me but for several members of our team [we are the ones who stand up for ourselves and are viewed as 'difficult']. How in world do we handle, this keep our jobs and oust this man? I've decided after the last round of BS that I'm now ready to take him on and get him removed from his position.

  • Caroline McLean

    This is a fantastic article and well timed for me personally. I know I am a very sensitive person but this also stems from my strong sense of loyalty to employers and always wanting to succeed in everything I do. It is not enough for me to just get by or just do my job. However this also makes me vulnerable when things do not go well I take it as a personal failure. I thought this advice on taking the facts and leaving the other comments to be really helpful. Thank you.

    Keen to hear how other people handle criticism or those horrible group emails that go around when someone is being negative towards you directly and cc'ing the world on it. My first reaction is wanting to send a defensive email back covering yourself but I have got into the habit of ignoring it for a few days and then responding with as little as possible. Not sure if this is the best way to handle this though.

  • Lyda Hawes

    Great points, but what about the responsibility for leaders to deliver feedback in a manner that can be received? I have had soft-hearted employees who were great performers and took constructive feedback well, when it was delivered gently. Hope this post doesn't encourage managers/leaders to believe that responsibility now all lies with the receiver...

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    I agree Lyda!  If the real goal is improvement and change then delivery and internalization are really important.  I am all about results and I believe you should craft your criticism to the receiver.  If you alienate them, your feedback may simply be rejected before it's given any objective consideration. 

  • Alex Candee

    Every interview includes a performance task. The candidate then has time to reflect upon their performance and feedback is given directly after. Being flexible and reflective is essential and we will not hire anyone that does not demonstrate these competencies. Feedback is a gift, especially when it is critical. 

  • Bad Sales Manager

    F.I.R.E. technique is interesting. I use something similar - I FIRE anyone that criticizes me.

  • Dustin

    All very well - I completely agree with the sentiment in this article. What I would like to know is how to politely accept all criticism (constructive or otherwise), reflect and incorporate that which is helpful, and dismiss that which is not, but without offending the criticizer?

  • marykparker

    You can request time to process the information. I think that is probably one of the best techniques for separating emotion from fact---that actual emotional distance.

    For example, you're called in to the office and given the criticism (constructive or otherwise). Your response should probably be along the lines, "You've given me food for thought and I'd like to take time to reflect on what has been said. Could I follow up with you (insert time here) to discuss how I can make changes suggested by this information?

    That relieves any burden on the messenger (who usually feels uncomfortable delivering negative aspects of employees) and gives you the time to determine what elements are probably true and in what circumstances you may have displayed these characteristics.

    Even if you don't believe the criticisms (or can guess who might have put these ideas out there), there is usually a grain of truth to the statements, and that is where you want to focus your energies.