Have you ever received feedback from a respected mentor or manager that was so harsh that it blindsided you? Harsh or negative feedback is not usually intended to be malicious or spiteful in nature. And yet, the way it is delivered to us can be nothing short of soul-crushing.
Criticism that is framed as feedback and is spiteful or mean in nature is not feedback. That’s just plain old bullying. But that is not the focus of this article. In this article, we are going to focus on how to recover when you have been hit by harsh feedback, and what steps you should take next.
First, let us define what counts as harsh feedback. Here are a few examples.
“This is absolute rubbish. This report is just numbers and words strung together. None of the facts are even relevant to our presentation!”
“Tim, your slow progress has constantly delayed the project. And now everyone is being penalized for it. I’m extremely disappointed in you. You’ve let all of us down.”
“What kind of person lets such a big detail escape them? We’ve at least 1000 products with a defective design and now all those products are going to be put in the reject pile.”
All of the above are examples of harsh feedback. This is to say, though they are negative in nature, they all express valid concerns.
“You are absolutely incompetent and I hope you get hit by a truck.”
“This is a man’s job. You’re not fit for it.”
Anytime, criticism becomes a personal attack and focuses on gender, sexuality, or race, or is said with the intent to tear someone down, it can no longer count as feedback.
The reason why I laid out a definition of what counts as harsh feedback and what doesn’t is because far too often, there’s a tendency to frame personal criticisms as feedback. Or, sometimes, the recipients of feedback might view harsh feedback as a personal attack, when it is not intended that way.
Most people deal with feedback in two ways. Either they agree with it or they don’t agree with it. When it comes to feedback, there’s no neutral position to take. Of course, the extent to which you accept or dispute the feedback can vary in degree.
Here is what you should do, when you agree with the harsh feedback that has been given to you.
Separate emotions from facts
Harsh feedback is demoralizing. There’s no other way to look at it really. At best, it’s a badly worded motivational speech, at worst; it’s a damning indictment of you and also your terrible qualities. But however you choose to view it, harsh feedback tends to inspire a variety of emotions in most of us, most of which are negative. It’s easy to use those emotions to blow feedback out of proportion and make it something it is not.
So after you have brooded over it for some time, cried about it, or raged about it, review all that you have heard and break it down to its core components. What exactly was said to you? Which all aspects of your work did it refer to? What could be the basis behind the feedback? Once you separate emotions from facts, it becomes easier for you to accept the feedback and in turn, you can then further decide what course you want to pursue.
Once you accepted your feedback and acknowledged that you have indeed messed up, the next thing you need to do is review and analyze your work. See where you went wrong. All of us like to think that we do good work and that is true to an extent. But conventional wisdom holds that to an extent, our opinions of ourselves are rosy. When reviewing and analyzing your past work, you might come across instances where you thought you did good work, but in actual fact, you did not measure up to the standards your manager was holding you to.
This way, you will also begin to make sense of the harsh feedback you have received. An open mind is really important when it comes to accepting harsh feedback. It is the only way, you can move forward. When you hold on to harsh feedback and refuse to view it through a non-confrontational lens, you run the risk of being blind to your shortcomings.
Make a plan
Once you figure out where you made mistakes or where you dropped the ball, it’s time to create an improvement plan. Assuming you are still holding on to your position and designation, how do you plan to apply the feedback you have received? Furthermore, what are you doing to prove that you are determined to improve? Does this plan include using additional resources? An improvement plan will help you stay on track. Ideally speaking, you want to create an improvement plan with your manager. They need to stay in the loop. It’s quite possible that they too are invested in seeing you bounce back and might have suggestions you may not have considered.
Once you’ve made your plan, now stick to it. Rigorously. The improvement plan should act as your main guide. If possible, also create a separate work plan for yourself as that will help you improve too and provide you with direction as well, whenever you feel overwhelmed. As you follow your improvement plan, be sure to regularly check in with your manager. They need to know how you are doing and if their feedback made a difference.
There is an assumption that only poor performers receive harsh feedback. As we all know, that’s not true. Anyone can receive harsh feedback, even high performers. Nobody performs at peak performance all the time. Outside factors do affect us and our ability to work. And most of the time, remember that harsh feedback comes from a place of concern and frustration.
Here is what you should do, when you do not agree with the harsh feedback that has been given to you.
Separate fact from emotion
The reason why this point has been reiterated a second as well is that it’s true. When it comes to feedback, separating fact from emotion is absolutely necessary. It would be great if we could all do it with the clinical, dispassionate efficiency of a robot, but unfortunately, that is not the case. But if you want to respond to feedback that you think you have received unfairly, then it is important to break the feedback down. What do you think could be the cause for the feedback? Was it something your manager could have misinterpreted? Or somewhere you unknowingly dropped the ball? Was it behavior that could have been misconstrued?
It can be easy to assume that our actions are transparently clear to everyone at the workplace, but more often than not, the opinion your colleagues have of you is formed by what they can see, not what they know.
Can you offer a response to the person who gave you feedback?
Responding to positive feedback is easy enough. You can say thank you and be done with it. Responding to negative feedback is a completely different ballgame. If you think you have wrongly received negative feedback, once you listen to it and break it down, then naturally you are going to want to offer a response, or at least an opportunity to defend yourself.
But unfortunate as it is, there are so many things that can go wrong. You have to keep in mind that when you defend yourself against negative feedback, in the minds of most managers, it’s going to seem like you are refusing to take responsibility for your actions. Here is where tone matters the most. You absolutely cannot adopt a belligerent tone. The thing about negative feedback is that in a way, the deck is already stacked against you. Responding to it angrily (no matter how deserved that anger is) only tends to reinforce the negative opinion that the feedback giver already has.
Then, you have one more important thing to consider. How receptive is the feedback giver going to be to your response? If you are in good standing with your manager, then you can possibly respond to negative feedback. However, if your relationship with the feedback giver is already fraught, then there’s a very good chance that your response to feedback is going to make the situation worse.
Carefully consider your options before you choose to respond. And of course, ask for sufficient time. You don’t need to respond right away. Do it within a few days, however.
Apologize and move on
There’s a good chance that though you followed the first step, you could not follow the next step and offer a response to the negative feedback you received. There are plenty of bad managers out there as well and you may find it nigh impossible to defend yourself without damaging yourself further. If you are already on perilous ground, then the best thing you can do is apologize for the feedback you have received and move on. To be honest, it might leave a sour taste in your mouth, after all, who likes apologizing for a mistake they did not make, but it is an action that will help you immensely.
No matter how you look at it, feedback is a part and parcel of the workplace. And truth be told, there’s always something that can be done better or something that can never be fixed. Do not be bogged down by negative feedback.
No matter the outcome, look at it as an opportunity to learn.
Kylee Stone supports the professional services team as a CX intern and psychology SME. She leverages her innate creativity with extensive background in psychology to support client experience and organizational functions. Kylee is completing her master’s degree in Industrial-Organizational psychology at the University of Missouri Science and Technology emphasizing in Applied workplace psychology and Statistical Methods.