When you receive critical feedback: 5 things not to do

Giving feedback can be challenging but is a necessary part of being a manager to help your team grow and develop. But, what do you do when you are on the receiving end? Does it catch you off guard? Does it make you mad? Does it help you stop and reflect? Do you get down on yourself? Do you make course corrections and move on?

How we hear and take feedback can influence how we are seen by others and how we feel about our own abilities. Just as it may not be easy to deliver tough feedback, it may be equally difficult to receive it. No one wants to hear that they didn’t do something 100% right especially if they poured their heart and soul into a project or presentation.

However, no matter what level you are in an organization, you may receive feedback on how to do something differently. You may disagree with the feedback being given to you, or it may resonate with you and allow you to make adjustments.

As a kid, I would write for fun. Everything I wrote from essays in English class to articles for the school newspaper, I got very used to receiving my work back with red marks all over it. Granted, some papers looked hacked to pieces while some had an occasional mark but always in red.

In my early days, I would get disheartened but as I matured, I realized the red pen was meant to help me.  Nothing creates thicker skin than to see your art, your heart on the page ripped to shreds with red ink. The more red I saw, the more I improved my writing skills over time.

Feedback can be the same. The red pen may be intimidating or tough to see but it is meant to help us. Like with most skill development, we need to approach this with the right mindset. A fairly trite but true statement is that feedback is a gift. It can be hard to see it as a gift in the moment. When we see our papers bleeding with red ink or hear that our presentation could have been delivered better, it is tough to have a mindset where we are grateful to hear it could have been better. However, this is exactly the right mindset to have.

Here are five things to avoid when receiving critical feedback:

  1. Don’t put up your shields.
    I used to have a team member who would come to one-on-one conversations with folded arms and raised eyebrows….almost every time. I would ask for her input and feedback on how things were going. She would say: “Fine”. I would ask pointed questions about certain projects only to be met with silence. She put up her shields every time she came to see me because I gave her some constructive feedback once after I received several complaints about her. Unfortunately, she never was open to feedback that wasn’t 100% positive. In this case, she was overlooked for a promotion and was eventually let go during a down time while her colleagues were retained. This is an extreme example but being open to hearing feedback can matter a lot to how others view us as professionals.
  2. Don’t become defensive.
    I also had a team member who struggled to get her work done and meet deadlines. I would ask her if everything was okay first to see if there was something going on that contributed to her lack of performance. Instead, what I received were reasons why it was everyone else’s fault. When I probed into what she could have done differently, the answer was “nothing”. She always did everything right; everybody else was wrong. This level of defensiveness did not serve her well. Even if someone else did not help, there is always something we can take as feedback for ourselves.
  3. Don’t blow it off.
    A colleague of mine would tell me about a team member who would thank him for the feedback and then make no changes. His behavior never changed. He kept committing the same mistakes over and over again. Finally, he was asked if he heard the feedback and what he thought about it. He said he would listen but he was so busy that he didn’t think he needed to do anything about it. My colleague was giving constructive feedback and his team member only heard the “wah, wah, wah” like any adult on the Peanuts. He didn’t think it was important enough to heed and make changes. My colleague could have worked with him on an action plan instead of just saying the same thing over and over. This could have been a way to help him not dismiss the feedback so easily.
  4. Don’t beat yourself up.
    Some of us don’t get defensive or angry; some of us actually take it personally and decide to beat ourselves up over the fact that we could have done something differently. This is as unproductive as having your shields up or blaming others. Feedback does not mean you are a terrible employee. It does not mean you are inadequate or unskilled. It merely means you may have some adjustments to make to get to the next level. So, don’t blow it off, but don’t take it too hard either.
  5. Don’t skip reflection.
    Most important than not being too emotional about feedback is to not spend some time reflecting. What lesson could I learn here? What could I do differently next time? Is there something I should research or study more? Can I find someone to help coach or mentor me in a certain space? The team member who blew off the feedback did work on action plan with his manager, which yielded being paired with someone who was an expert in the area he needed to develop. This helped him grow and eventually get promoted.

Feedback can be tricky. Listening, processing it, and maybe taking small steps to action it are signs of a true professional. Even if someone else isn’t cooperating with you or you don’t like your manager, take the feedback for what it is — a tool to help you. Find some nugget in the feedback to reflect on and make a change, even if it is small.

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