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This Is How To Use Negative Feedback To Be More Successful

No one likes negative criticism, but it’s often what you need in order to grow. Here’s how to use it to your advantage.

This Is How To Use Negative Feedback To Be More Successful
[Photo: Flickr user José Pablo Orozco Marín]

Let’s face it: Negative feedback on your job performance can be a drag. Who likes to be told that their work could use improvement?

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Research published in the Harvard Business Review provides some interesting insight into receiving and giving such feedback. While managers by and large avoided giving negative feedback or praise, employees craved it. And they weren’t looking for platitudes, either—57% wanted corrective feedback versus 43% who wanted praise. Seventy-two percent said that corrective feedback could improve their job performance.

Still, it’s one thing to think about that in theory—and another to hear from your manager, “We need to talk about your performance . . .” If you do find yourself on the receiving end of negative feedback or criticism, here’s how to cope.

Check Your Defensiveness

When you get feedback that stings, be aware of your emotions, says Rebecca Zucker, a partner at leadership consultancy Next Step Partners. “Understand, ‘Okay, this stings,’ but why does it feel like this? Is it because I’m embarrassed? Is it because I tried really hard and I’m not getting the recognition I feel like I deserve?” she says.

Defensive reactions are normal but may not be useful in feedback situations—especially since many feedback givers don’t have great communication skills. So try not to let your feelings get in the way of what might be constructive dialogue. If you feel yourself getting angry or tempted to escalate the situation, listen to what’s being said, then take some time to process the information and formulate a response.

Take Notes

Note taking is often a good idea for a variety of reasons. Jotting down the feedback can allow you to capture what’s being said, says Tawanda Johnson, president and CEO of human resources consulting firm RKL Resources. Such notes will give you something to review once you’ve had time to digest what your supervisor or peers are saying. Depending on the nature of the feedback, it might be a good idea to take a look at your notes the next day and see if you have any additional questions.

Clarify What’s Fair

Sometimes, feedback is fair and meant for your improvement—and sometimes it’s not valid and the result of a misunderstanding or a poor manager. As you consider what’s being said, try to remain objective, says workplace bullying expert and philanthropist Andrew Faas, author of From Bully to Bullseye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire. Think about the dynamic in your workplace. Is your supervisor truly trying to help you improve and grow? Or are you in an environment where you’re being unfairly criticized for reasons beyond your control? If it’s the former, it’s time to work on understanding how to improve. If it’s the latter, you need to guard against letting unfair criticism demoralize you while you decide if this workplace is the right fit for you.

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Ask Questions

If the feedback is fair, it’s time for a conversation, Zucker says. Negative feedback shouldn’t be a “dump and run” where you’re blindsided and have no chance to ask questions or respond. Try to stick to the facts and not the emotional component. If your boss says you need to improve your organizational skills and you’re not sure what that means, ask for examples, Johnson adds.

You might ask something like, “What are the one or two things I could be doing differently that would make the biggest difference to you,” Zucker suggests. That way, you’re sure your focusing your efforts in the right place, she says. If your boss is talking about better project management organization and you think the problem is your messy desk, you could end up focusing on improving something that doesn’t matter.

Get Help

If there are obstacles that prevent you from improving, share them, Faas says. You might need extra training, or there may be factors of which your supervisor is unaware. If you’re dealing with a personal issue that’s affecting your work, or if you have a project that’s taking an inordinate amount of time and having an impact on your performance, your supervisor might not realize it. Discuss these impediments and what you need to get past them.

Create A Plan

Once you have clarity and a commitment of resources, look at the steps you can take to get better, Johnson says. How can you ensure that a mistake doesn’t happen again or a skill improves? Create a written series of steps with deadlines to hold yourself accountable and ensure that you make progress.

Follow Up

Zucker says that sometimes employees are worried about following up with managers after receiving negative feedback. “I think it’s perfectly okay to hold your managers accountable. By that, I mean schedule some follow-up intervals,” she says. You may want to plan a follow-up meeting in 60 days to review progress and get additional feedback. “A good leader would welcome that,” she says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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