How to deal with negative feedback at work

Young woman in white shirt working at desk

No matter how well you perform at work, everyone experiences receiving negative feedback once in a while. Technically, feedback is feedback, we are the ones who judge it as being positive or negative. Feedback is about improving ourselves, even if that means continuing to do the good things we do.

But negative feedback can hurt. Our ego can be sensitive. It can go further and trigger feelings of shame or not being good enough. If negative feedback affects you in that way, then pay close attention to the tips below to better prepare yourself (and consider working with a coach, or even therapist, to get to the root of the issue). Here are things you can do before, during and after receiving feedback.

Before getting any feedback

Change your mindset about negative feedback

Think of it as constructive or developmental; meant to help you improve or be more effective (even if it’s delivered to you in a clumsy, less-than-ideal manner). Yes, this requires a bit of mental gymnastics. Often, it’s said that feedback is a gift (imagine a beautifully wrapped box). Think of it that way, so when it comes you have that visual to ground you in the positive.

Identify what feedback you would give yourself

Proactively think about the areas you could improve to increase your effectiveness right now. Chances are, you know the feedback others would probably give you (and sometimes we’re tougher on ourselves than others would be). What would you advise yourself to do differently to improve? How could some of your strengths help you make those improvements?

Reflect on your past experiences of receiving feedback

What did you think and how did you feel? What was it about that feedback that caused you to feel that way? What did it remind you of in your past? What did you tell yourself about that feedback? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider their perspective in giving you that feedback. It can often be what we imagine or assume about the feedback that threatens us, more than the feedback itself.

Listen to understand, not to respond or defend. Breathe while you are listening to stay present and not become reactive. Try to understand what the other person is saying.

During the feedback process

Listen, breathe, listen

Listen to understand, not to respond or defend. Breathe while you are listening to stay present and not become reactive. Try to understand what the other person is saying. My executive coaching clients find simply nodding signals listening and buys them time to compose themselves and put their attention on what’s being said rather than the icky feeling inside.

Ask questions to understand better

As Stephen Covey said decades ago, “seek first to understand before being understood”. Ask them to repeat it again (in case you didn’t hear it the first time because you were listening to the little voices in your head defending yourself). Ask for specific examples to help you understand. Ask, in a curious tone, questions about what they see or hear you doing that’s impeding your performance such as:

  • Are there any behaviours that aren’t effective?
  • What am I saying that has that impact?
  • What specifically would you suggest I do or say?
  • How should I do or say it differently to improve?

These types of questions can even help people that are poor at giving feedback to be better.

Acknowledge having heard the feedback

Restate what you have heard so you can confirm you’ve received it as intended. Tell the other person that you will go away and consider how to act on their feedback. Depending on the feedback, the situation and the individual who said it to you, you might want to say you will come back to them to talk it through further or share your improvements. Say thank you (even if it’s thanking them for just caring about your performance!).

Anne Taylor, Directions Coaching

After receiving feedback

Consciously decide where to ‘take’ the feedback

This tip relates back to the idea of feeling bad about ourselves when we receive negative feedback. There are different ‘lens’ through which you can ‘see’ the feedback. You can see it at a behavioural level (hence, why you ask them what they see or hear you doing, to focus them on giving you feedback about behaviours). At the other end, you can see it at an identity level, that you are a bad person or are not good enough for the role.

Decide what you will take on board

As with any gift, you can decide whether to receive it or not. Firstly, find the 2% truth in the feedback. You might not agree with anything the person is saying, and often there is 2% truth in there somewhere. You had an impact, and in the case of negative feedback, it was an ineffective impact. How that impact has been interpreted by the ‘giver of the feedback’ may not be entirely inaccurate. Putting your ego and self-doubt aside, what truth is in the feedback they are proposing? Secondly, decide if you will do anything with the feedback.

Depending on the feedback, the situation and the giver of the feedback you need to consciously decide what’s best for you personally, for your performance and potentially your career. Lastly, if you decide all or some of it is relevant, then develop a plan of action to improve it. You already have ideas from them when you asked what you could do differently to be more effective.

Follow up as necessary

You might want to follow up with the person that gave you the feedback to get more clarity by asking more questions. There is no harm in re-visiting it to understand more or to get suggestions on what to do better. You could also let them know what you are doing with the feedback, if anything.

Once again, this very much depends on the situation, the feedback and who gave it. Some of the positives of doing this are: positively reinforcing that person to continue to give feedback, creating a feedback culture, showing you value them and their observations, and potentially having them think more highly of you as you take your impact seriously.

Remember, just as you might have struggled with receiving negative feedback, others might too. Take that into consideration when you are giving feedback to others. Keep it focused on things they can change, such as behaviour, skills and capabilities. Don’t get personal, don’t give feedback at an identity level. Frame it as developmental and express your intention to help them improve their effectiveness.


Learn more about Anne on her website, Directions Coaching.

For more information on how to give feedback well, read her article, How to give constructive feedback to empower people. Anne’s book, Soft Skills, Hard Results: A Practical Guide to People Skills for Analytical Leaders, is available now.

Feeling confident giving and receiving feedback in a constructive way takes time and experience. You may well make mistakes, and that’s OK. If you’d like to develop your skills in giving and receiving feedback, consider working with a career coach. They can work with you to not only develop your self, helping you understand your goals and how to achieve them, but also develop your skills as an employee and manager.

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Anne Taylor

Written by Anne Taylor

Anne Taylor is an executive coach and author, helping successful, results-driven leaders improve their people skills to be more effective and satisfied.

Written by Anne Taylor

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