The Perfect Recipe for Handling Negative Feedback at Work

Accept and learn from professional criticism.

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Chrissy Scivicque
Chrissy Scivicque
Let's be real here: No one likes negative feedback. Criticism in the workplace can be especially painful. After all, we all want to do a good job. Hearing that you've fallen short of expectations can be a serious blow to the ego. Even worse, it can create all kinds of stress and fear as you suddenly begin to second-guess yourself at every turn.

Still, your superiors—and sometimes even your peers—have to be able to give honest feedback, both good and bad. How else will you ever improve? Admittedly, some people are better at it than others. But accepting and learning from negative feedback is an inevitable part of life in the workplace—even if it deflates your ego a bit in the process. Here are a few tips that might help make it a little easier.

1. Recognize what it's worth. There are two different kinds of criticism: constructive and destructive. It's important to recognize the difference.

Constructive criticism is meant to prevent problems, ensure things are done correctly, and ultimately, help you grow and improve. Destructive criticism is personal, hurtful, and designed to make you feel bad or put you in your place—not to create positive change. The latter is of no value so pay it no mind. Of course, if it goes too far, this kind of thing can edge toward bullying, so get some backup from a supervisor or human resources representative if and when needed.

It's important to note, however, that constructive criticism isn't always delivered in the nicest way. It may still feel harsh, but if there's value underneath, don't dismiss it just because the messenger could use some training or a little tact.

2. Consider the source. Still, not all constructive criticism should just be accepted outright. Distinguish fact from opinion and always consider the person from whom the feedback is coming. Some people love to offer unsolicited opinions that they think are helpful but, in reality, simply aren't.

So who's giving you this feedback? Is it your boss, whom you respect and want to please? Or is it a co-worker who doesn't really know what you do all day but thinks she's got the answer to everything? Sure, people like this might hit the nail on the head once in a while, but don't give them more attention than they deserve. Concentrate on the feedback that comes from people you respect and whose opinions matter—those who know you, your job, your skills, and your work ethic, and who truly have your best interests at heart.

3. Pull on your big girl (or guy) pants. Assuming the criticism is from an appropriate source and is designed to be constructive, not destructive, open your ears and let it in but don't let it break your spirit. It's fine to be sensitive, but we're all adults here. People shouldn't have to walk on eggshells to tell you things you don't want to hear. If it triggers tears or raging feelings of inadequacy when someone tells you a project you worked on needs improvement, it's time to hike up your big girl (or guy) pants and be strong. Get your emotions in check so you can think straight about what's going on.

4. Listen and gain clarity. Hold back for a moment and don't argue, get defensive, or make excuses. Just listen. Try to understand why this feedback is being given and what you can do to improve.

If something is confusing, ask for clarification. Questions show you're trying to digest the feedback. Restate what you're hearing to ensure it's accurate. Emotions have a way of mixing up the message at times so don't skip this part.

5. Make use of it. The more you're willing to face the situation head on, learn from it, and change the behavior that triggered the negative feedback, the more others will respect you and be willing to let little things slide in the future. However, if you're the hotheaded type who refuses to hear anything negative about your work or adapt your behavior when appropriate, people will become less and less patient with you over time. Don't get so stuck in your ways that you can't see a better way of doing things when it's presented to you.

Of course, if you truly don't agree with the criticism and believe you have valid reasoning, it's fine to open the conversation—calmly and respectfully. Perhaps by working on the problem together, a better conclusion can be reached.

6. Let go of perfection. Putting your pride aside to listen and learn from negative feedback is one of the most difficult challenges we face in the workplace, but it shows a lot of character too. If you're having a hard time, give yourself a reality check. You're pretty darn great, but you're not perfect. And the good news is: no one expects you to be. So let go of that unrealistic expectation. We all have to deal with negative feedback at some point in our career. It's how you handle it and what you do with it that makes you stand out.

Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, believes work can be a nourishing life experience. As a career coach, corporate trainer, and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.