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How I learned to love critical feedback at work—and you can too

It took years of conditioning to rewire my body’s response to criticism. But learning how to find joy in failure can help you get ahead.

How I learned to love critical feedback at work—and you can too
[Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels]
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The internal feedback I get from my team can be brutal. One recent review: You tell people what to do instead of showing them how to problem-solve for themselves; you race through solutions without stopping to hear that we’ve already tried them all.

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It was direct, and it was hard to hear. But my first thought was “What a gift. I’m genuinely grateful for you telling me how much I suck.”

To be clear, that sort of reaction wasn’t always the case for me. It’s instinctive now, but I was sensitive and insecure when I was younger. It took years of conditioning to rewire my body’s response to criticism.

And if I can turn a scathing critique into my day’s highlight, anyone can.

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Now, more than ever, this ability to find joy in failure is not just a work skill, but a life skill. We’re living at a time of reinvention and change, trying lots of new things and (to be frank) probably doing some of them terribly. Developing that ability to absorb and really cherish critical feedback is a critical competitive edge for entrepreneurs, leaders, and pretty much anyone seeking to get ahead. For organizations, learning how to rewire failure at a companywide level can mean the difference between thriving and flailing in the post-COVID economy.

Importantly, this isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s a rewiring of the brain, and it works.

The science of rewiring failure

We’ve all heard of Pavlov’s dogs, taught to salivate at the sound of a bell. Crude as these early experiments were, they’re underpinned by a powerful and incredibly sophisticated mechanism: neuroplasticity.

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What you associate with happiness or with anxiety are learned experiences. When a stimulus becomes linked with a reaction over and over, your brain starts to recognize the pattern and creates neural pathways to help you make that connection even quicker.

The good news is, just because our brain is in a groove doesn’t mean we have to stay there. Even in adulthood, the mind is constantly restructuring, and you can consciously build new biological cables in your brain’s electrical system.

How? Be intentional about your reaction to criticism—responding with happiness or joy, even if it’s forced. This starts in the prefrontal cortex and takes conscious effort, but done enough times, you’ll find it starts to happen subconsciously. You’re literally changing the physical structure of your brain, creating pathways that take you where you want to go.

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Of course, that all sounds great in theory. In the heat of the moment, translating criticism to joy is challenging, to say the least. Over the years, the hacks below—a combination of perception shifts, meditations, and company policies—have helped me and my team rewire in response to failure and feedback.

Remember the X + Y principle

Rewiring starts with what I call the “X + Y principle.” Absent any feedback—on a work project, the quiche you cooked for dinner, the tie you’re wearing, whatever—the best you’re going to do is X. But if someone goes to the trouble of highlighting a flaw, failing, or oversight, they’re giving you a bonus opportunity, Y.

Importantly, seizing that bonus requires internalizing and acting on the feedback, which is easier said than done. But if you’re able to accept criticism graciously, it can be an absolute gift, one that leaves you richer than you were before. In some cases, these gains are quite literal: A recent Gallup study showed managers who received consistent feedback showed 8.9% greater profitability.

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Equally helpful: Seeing loss or failure not as the end result or output, but merely as input for your next steps or career moves. It’s not the end of the story. Instead, it’s the spark that propels the protagonist forward.

Set a “wallowing half-life”

Okay, shifting your perception is one thing. But falling short of expectations still can sting. It’s absolutely okay to experience those poor-me moments, but they need to be brief. Even for major blows—from someone close to me, or after a significant setback at work—I like to keep it to one day, tops. But I don’t really wallow here. Instead, it’s more of a retrospective: unpacking feedback, gathering input on what went wrong, and making concrete changes. To move on, the most effective tool I’ve found is to put emotion aside and think critically about the end results I want to achieve. That way, it’s easier to turn negative feelings into some sort of gain.

The act of reflection helps us link and construct meaning from experience. Studies show that people who practice daily reflection can improve their performance by 22%. And the moments when the wound is still fresh and the details are clear are the ideal time to digest and analyze. I find the most helpful thing to do is focus on the outcomes you want to achieve.

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Model how to fail epically, gracefully

To really maximize the benefits of an “I love failure” mindset, you need to rewire the whole company to be a safe space for feedback and failure.

This starts with setting an expectation that giving (and getting) feedback is okay. It’s not a sign that things have gone wrong. It’s just the way we roll. Normalizing this begins at the top. I ask for 360-degree feedback all the time—enlisting input from everyone I work with, whether they’re in the C-suite or on the front lines of customer service. Sure, as CEO, my position is unique (and getting straight talk as a leader isn’t always easy). But by approaching this with sincerity and gratitude, I hope to show it’s more than lip service. I hope this also models to other people that asking for feedback is okay and not a sign of weakness, whether that’s in regularly scheduled reviews or on an ad-hoc basis from managers and colleagues.

It’s just as important to ensure people know how to give feedback correctly. Statistics show that employees generally hate giving feedback, preferring to avoid confrontation and discomfort. But feedback needn’t be either of these things. The key, as a generation of Kim Scott fans knows, is radical candor—”caring personally while challenging directly.”

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Importantly, radical candor isn’t an invitation to act like a jerk or get personal. It’s acknowledging mistakes are made with the very best of intentions and committing to focus on the problem, not the person. We’ve built this into the concept of “blameless retrospectives”: regular, shame-free meetings that give everyone the chance to come together and discuss mistakes or failures, without finger-pointing. Done right, this can create an environment where folks come forward freely with their own oversights and misgivings, avoiding the costly losses that happen when errors stay unaddressed.

Finally, maybe the best way to rewire your response to adversity and feedback: Watch and learn from others who do it right. This year, I’ve been lucky to work with thousands of people launching new businesses. Yoga instructors turned online fitness gurus. Bakers turned culinary influencers. Teachers turned hula-hoop dancers. Out of necessity, they reinvented careers online—publicly, sometimes awkwardly—and seized on every scrap of feedback to iterate and improve.

For anyone whose livelihood has been upended by the crisis, take comfort in the fact that we’re all falling short at something, all the time. Learning to celebrate feedback may be the only way to get ahead.

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Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Thinkific, the leading platform for creating and selling online courses.