What To Do When You Get Negative Feedback At Work

Feedback is a gift, or at least that’s the rumor around the watercooler. Why is it then, when we say we want to improve and grow in our careers, that it is so difficult to positively receive feedback that will help us do just that? 

how to receive criticism at work

Negative feedback goes against what we want to believe about ourselves. When you’re striving to be a high performer, you hate to hear that you’ve missed the mark. And yet, negative feedback is essentially unavoidable.

The good news? Feedback, even when it is negative, is actually a gift if you know how to use it. If you approach that criticism with an open mind, you’ll learn from your mistakes as much as your masterpieces. Here’s how to receive criticism and use it to further your career.

1. Take a beat and take a breath

You just received harsh criticism at work, and you don’t agree with it. You worked hard, and your boss is totally off base! The perfect response is to fire off a quick, angry email, while ranting to your office bestie on Slack, right? While we’re all likely to be guilty of this inappropriate reaction, it is not only a recipe for disaster, but also an unproductive approach in how to receive criticism.  

Whether you’re directly given feedback or you catch wind of criticism, the best first step is to do nothing, literally. If you get an email that upsets you, close your browser and step away from your desk for a few minutes. Just left a meeting where you couldn’t seem to satisfactorily answer your boss’s questions? Take a breath, take a lap around the office, and let your emotions quell before you do anything else. 

2. Consider the source

Begin to reflect on what you heard, starting with who delivered it. The critic is as important – if not more important – than the criticism, in how it makes you feel.

If it’s from someone you respect and trust:

Negative feedback from someone you look up to can be the most challenging. You believe that person to be correct most of the time, so you assume that their assessment of you is also correct. It can be tough to feel like you’re disappointing someone you admire. In these situations, assume positive intent – this person is trying to help you grow, not berate you or make you sad. Try to separate emotion and pride from feedback on your work product. It’s not about you, it is about the work.

If it’s from someone with whom you disagree:

Separate the criticism from the critic. There are always going to be people in your work life with whom you just don’t mesh. We all have different strengths and styles, but not getting along doesn’t necessarily make their feedback less valid.

If it’s from someone outside the situation:

If you fall prey to secondhand criticism that is delivered via the office gossip or your work wife, and not someone directly tied into the work, try your best to disregard, at least for now. If there are issues with your performance that aren’t being brought directly to you, that’s another problem. Make a plan to address it with your manager or another appropriate colleague.

3. Reflect on the feedback itself

Now that you’re calm, cool, and collected about where the feedback came from, you can ruminate on what you heard. Here’s a series of questions to ask yourself to manage your reaction when you receive criticism:

  • Is this feedback directly about my performance, actions, or something else?
  • Is this feedback I have heard before?
  • Do I agree with this feedback? 
  • Did I do anything out of the ordinary that would lead to this response?
  • Why am I feeling upset about this criticism? 

Allow yourself to sit in reflection of your feedback to thoughtfully manage a response and action plan. Asking questions helps you analyze the situation and decide how you feel. You may realize that you’re upset because you actually agreed with the criticism, and got sad and defensive. Or, you could decide that the feedback wasn’t really directed at you, and you can let it go. You may also end up realizing you don’t quite understand what went wrong, and need to ask for more input.

4. Decide on your path forward

You know how you feel about the critic and the criticism; now let’s do something about it. Consider your reflection and plan your next steps in how to receive criticism, which may take one or more avenues:

  • Set up time to discuss the feedback, either directly with your critic, or someone else you trust. Be transparent that you’re responding to their feedback, and that the meeting is to help you learn. During the meeting, be open to hearing criticism and working together towards a mutual solution. This is not a confrontation, it is a collaboration to get to a place where you both feel good about the work and the path forward.
  • Plan how to improve in the future. If you’re reading this article, there is a good chance you’re willing to receive feedback positively. Take your feedback like the gift that it is and brainstorm ideas for how to avoid getting it again in the future. Make an action plan, either in your head or on paper, and share it with colleagues who will hold you accountable.
  • Do nothing. If upon reflection, this feedback really wasn’t for you, you can (and should) move on.

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About Emily Baseman

Emily Baseman considers herself a fitness generalist. A firm believer that wellness is found by giving your body what it deserves, she is dedicated to working out regularly, drinking lots of water, and eating plenty of vegetables. From barre to HIIT to yoga to cycling, Emily loves to work up a sweat running around to take in a little bit of everything. She is a midwestern transplant to Washington, DC, currently working, cooking, and exploring the fitness scene in our nation's capital. By day, Emily helps social impact brands and nonprofits use social media to tell their philanthropic stories. She's obsessed with her dog, Bascom, red wine, and cheese of all kinds.