Stop Fearing Critical Feedback — Fear Not Getting It Instead

“To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of negative feedback can attest that it sucks.

Aside from the emotional discomfort of being told your work isn’t good enough, the physical responses of a racing heart, tense muscles, and increasing blood pressure aren’t exactly pleasant.

As we shift into fight-or-flight mode, it’s tempting to 1) heatedly defend ourselves — “It wasn’t my fault!”, 2) mentally check out of a conversation — “What does he know anyway?”, or 3) become frozen in a self-defeating loop of negative thoughts — “I’ll never be good enough.”

But, when it comes to work, the further I progress in my career, the more I’m convinced that pushing past those initial reactions and responding positively to negative feedback is a secret superpower.

If you’re a team member, the ability to respond gracefully to negative feedback pushes us to continue growing in our roles and builds strong relationships with coworkers. As a team leader, responding to criticism constructively drives us to be better managers and creates a team culture of openness and honesty.

Cultivating our capacity to respond with curiosity and consideration when confronted with flaws in our work can make all the difference in our careers. However, that’s much easier said than done.

How can we get over our fear of negative feedback and let it guide us towards our best work?

“If we really dislike someone, the last thing we would do is tell them how to improve.”

When our jobs get all tangled up with our identities, professional evaluations can feel oddly personal. A critical critique of our design mockups sends us into a spiral of self-doubt. A negative review of our leadership style feels like a character indictment. As we battle with imposter syndrome, negative feedback is the kindling that fuels a continued insecurity about our abilities.

Negative feedback is hard to hear. But, consider the alternative: No negative feedback. Ever. The absence of critical feedback can mean one of two things:

  1. Your work is good enough but you’re no longer developing your skills.
  2. Your work is subpar and no one’s telling you.

Neither of these scenarios is good when our aim is to advance our careers. Kim Scott, a former Director at Google and current corporate advocate for tough love management, believes criticizing employees when they screw up is a “moral obligation”, something she had to learn the hard way.

She recalls a time early in her management career when a former employee was performing under expectations and she failed to provide him with the feedback he needed to improve:

“I invited Bob to have coffee with me. He expected to have a nice chat, but instead, after a few false starts, I fired him. Now we are both huddled miserably over our muffins and lattes. After an excruciating silence, Bob pushed his chair back, middle screeching on marble, and looked me straight in the eye. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

In recognizing that she had failed Bob by not giving him a chance to improve, Scott realized that giving negative feedback is a sign that a manager cares. In her book, Radical Candor, she argues the best organizational results arise from a combination of caring personally and challenging directly:

“When Radical Candor is encouraged and supported by the boss, communication flows, resentments that have festered come to the surface and get resolved, and people begin to love not just their work but whom they work with and where they work.”

You don’t want to be Bob. Negative feedback about our work isn’t a personal attack on us. It’s an opportunity to consider the feedback we receive in a wider, more constructive context. Our managers and our colleagues have knowledge and experience that can help us perform at a higher level. New hires can remind us of our biases and entrenched “expertise”, encouraging us to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. In resisting the urge to treat critical evaluations of our work as personal attacks, we pave the way to understanding these different and valuable points of view.

In The Power of Feedback, Joseph Folkman reframes negative feedback in a way you may find helpful the next time someone tells you you could be doing better:

“Receiving negative feedback does not mean I am the worst person that ever lived. It only means that someone cares enough to tell me how to improve. If we really dislike someone, the last thing we would do is tell them how to improve.”

Respond to negative feedback in a way that ensures you’ll get more of it.

Understanding on a base level that negative feedback can help us is one thing. Acting accordingly is something else entirely.

When you receive dozens of critical comments on a presentation you’ve delivered, where do you even begin? How can you let your manager and team members know you’ve heard and considered their feedback, even if it stings?

Approaching feedback from a neutral and objective standpoint can be the difference between fixating on our own shortcomings, real or imagined, and putting in the work to generate work that gets noticed.

Unfortunately, this isn’t possible if we let the initial sting of criticism dictate our next moves.

In the moments when our knee-jerk reaction tells us to go on the defensive or switch to the offensive, there’s a third option: pause. There’s no shame in not knowing the answer to a question or needing time to process feedback. Taking the time to cool off and provide a thoughtful response allows us to truly hear the feedback and demonstrates to our managers and team members that we take their feedback seriously.

Here are a few lines that can be helpful when you feel you’re up against the wall:

  • “Let me get back to you with an answer, after I’ve thought further about the issue”.
  • “Thanks for your message! Give me 24 hours to provide you with a full response.”
  • “I had a different viewpoint, but let me look into yours.”

Buy yourself time to temper your emotions, reflect on the feedback, and respond with a level-head. Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist, provides nine tips on accepting constructive criticism without gettting overwhelmed with what others think about us:

  1. Specify who you’re worried about. Everyone isn’t against us, even though it might feel that way. Zeroing in on exactly whose opinion concerns us can relieve some anxiety.
  2. Identify whose voice that really is. Our fears can originate for outside ourselves. Is it a family member or friend’s voice echoing through our head? Work on silencing their incessant chatter.
  3. Don’t get defensive as a reflex. Choose listening. Before assessing the merits of the feedback we receive, it’s important to truly hear it.
  4. Consider the packaging. Reward balanced feedback that’s delivered kindly with your legitimate consideration. Alternately, feedback that resembles “personal attacks” and “backhanded compliments” should fall to the bottom of our concerns.
  5. Just because someone judges you, doesn’t mean they’re right. Disagreeing with the feedback you receive is well within your rights.
  6. Rise above, or at least fake it. Getting irritated is natural. However, remaining civil while fielding negative feedback is key in maintaining the respect of our colleagues and our own personal sanity.
  7. Think about how you can handle it. If your mind is jumping to the worst case scenario, go ahead and play along. Let your doomsday situation play out and ask yourself, “What would I do?” Having an answer helps us feel more in control.
  8. Remember that people change their minds. Opinions can shift as frequently as the weather. Don’t tie your self-worth to something that’s always shuffling one step to the left or right.
  9. Challenge your beliefs. Making a mistake isn’t the end of the world. Think back to your last error. Was the outcome life-altering or career-breaking? Likely not. Seek to stress-test your limiting beliefs to see if they have any basis in reality. It’s likely they don’t.

As Hendrickson reminds us, responding to criticism constructively doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with it. After a pause, you may disagree with the feedback you were provided. What then?

Sometimes you’ll be a decision maker. Other times you’ll be a decision informer. When things don’t go your way, it’s important to disagree and commit to the final decision anyways. This is a concept that Amazon adheres to in order to make quick decisions and get everyone moving in the same direction. Take Jeff Bezos’s lead:

“I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.”

Taking the negative feedback we receive and turning it into action items isn’t easy. It takes a level of maturity and a commitment to growth to step back and hear what others have to say, and then respond in a way that shows we’re a team player. It means putting aside our bruised egos in favour of accepting feedback that can allow both ourselves and our organizations to prosper.

It also means sprinting towards negative feedback instead of running from it.

Be bold and seek out negative feedback

Most things get easier with practice. Receiving negative feedback is no exception. The initial sting of criticism may never truly go away, but we can become less sensitive to it through more exposure.

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest and most successful hedge funds, is a large proponent of creating environments where honest feedback can thrive.

“I wanted to make an idea meritocracy. In other words, not an autocracy in which I would lead and others would follow and not a democracy in which everybody’s points of view were equally valued, but I wanted to have an idea meritocracy in which the best ideas would win out. And in order to do that, I realized that we would need radical truthfulness and radical transparency.”

This attitude has allowed Bridgewater Associates to soar. Dalio notes that he’s created an environment where, “Jen, who’s 24 years old and right out of college, can tell me, the CEO, that I’m approaching things terribly.”

In these kinds of environments, it’s easy to imagine that the bite of negative feedback hurts a lot less. When critique and constant evaluation is normalized, sensitivities tend to fade and we can develop a thicker skin.

But what if feedback is scarce at your company and annual performance reviews are the norm? What can you do to hone your craft through constructive feedback and move your team culture closer toward radical candor instead?

Kim Scott encourages employees to regularly ask for feedback with these steps:

  1. Set up a 1-on-1 with your boss. If you’re seeking feedback on your performance, don’t wait for your boss to set up a 1-on-1. Ask them directly for a meeting and give them an agenda ahead of time. Scott also recommends a go-to question that yields a better answer than simply asking for feedback: “What can I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?”
  2. Embrace the discomfort. Getting negative feedback isn’t exactly a feel-good time. The impulse might be to verbally bulldoze through a conversation out of nervousness to speed things along. Resist the urge. Lean into the pauses and awkward silences where beneficial feedback lies.
  3. Listen with the intent to understand and not to respond. Be vigilant of your defense mechanisms surfacing at the first sign of something we don’t want to hear. As Scott says, “Don’t get mad, get curious”.
  4. Reward the candor. As emotionally-charged as negative feedback is for a recipient, it can be similarly unpleasant to provide. If we don’t act on the feedback we’re given, someone may opt out of providing us with their honesty again. Demonstrate gratitude for the feedback you receive, whether that’s sending a follow-up or providing evidence you’ve followed through.

Asking for feedback can be intimidating and awkward and often puts the other person on the spot. A simple hack for making conversations around performance easier for everyone involved is to ask for “advice” instead of “feedback”. On the surface, these words sound like mere synonyms. However, on further inspection, the former is a word that unlocks a level of compassion and vulnerability.

Claire Law, the CEO of Know Your Company, describes how asking for advice instead of feedback “makes all the difference”.

“The word ‘feedback’ carries a lot of baggage. To some, they automatically associate it with a ‘critique’ or something negative. It can seem scary and formal. But ‘advice’ is a much more welcoming word. Advice is about lending someone a hand. When someone gives you advice, they’re just looking out for you.”

Asking for advice automatically forces someone to put themselves in your shoes. It can yield richer feedback that is grounded in personal experience. Asking for advice might reveal a story from your boss’s early career days, or prompt a colleague to share an occasion when they encountered the same obstacle. This small change in wording can be the difference between not receiving any valuable feedback and obtaining feedback that’s warm and full of actionable insight.

It’s painful when the response to our work isn’t as positive as we’d hoped. The round of applause we anticipated actually turns out to be silence. The grins we expected actually resemble grimaces.

But what I’ve learned along the way is this: The most damaging thing we can do is allow our fear of negative feedback to stop us from playing big.

Sure, taking the safe route, following the rulebook, and keeping our heads down allows us to avoid critique. Thinking, “let me just do what was done before”, is sure-fire protection from quizzical looks and audible sighs. It’s also a guaranteed way to be overlooked and stagnate in our professions.

Letting go of our fear of negative feedback provides us with the freedom to experiment with new approaches, explore our curiosities, and attempt actions where the outcomes are unknown. Does this open us up to critique? Of course. But, it also opens us up to growth and honing our craft in ways we never thought possible.

Learn how Twist can help your team give and respond to feedback in a more organized, thoughtful, and productive way.