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How Negative Feedback Can Help Boost Your Career

How Negative Feedback Can Help Boost Your Career

One of the most important parts of anyone’s career advancement is feedback. Giving and receiving feedback is how we grow, how we learn and, ultimately, how we improve as a person.

If we’re not getting the right feedback, or the feedback has been delivered in a way that is not easy for us to receive, we’re not getting that critical information that will help us become better at whatever we do and provide us with more opportunities for career advancement.

In a webinar we ran recently, we shared some interesting data from a Zenger and Folkman’s survey. The first was that 69% of employees said they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognised, so it’s clear that many of us feel we aren’t getting the recognition feedback we feel we deserve.

The second piece was from the consultancy firm PWC and revealed that 75% of people believe that feedback is valuable, yet less than 30% said they receive it.

But are we really not getting feedback? Or are we perhaps missing something?

It’s not all about delivering feedback

In the same Zenger and Folkman’s survey it was shown that 92% of respondents agreed that negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.

The key words here are “if delivered appropriately”.

Of course, a lot can be done to learn how to give feedback, and senior managers should always be looking to improve this skill; but at the same time, we also need to be looking at how to receive feedback, especially if it’s bad.

That’s why looking at how we receive feedback is key, because we can’t control how people give us feedback unfortunately. What we can control, however, is how we receive the feedback and how to direct it.

Asking the important questions

A crucial element to receiving bad feedback is to ask really good questions on specific aspects of what you are being told. We need to learn a little bit more about the intention behind what we are hearing, and then marry it up with the impact it has.

Once you understand this, you can then decide what you want to do with the feedback. You don’t have to accept it, but there could be a gift in there that you’re missing and that could really help you move forwards.

Rather than taking the natural, emotional reaction that almost always comes with bad feedback, put that to one side and ask yourself, “What can I do to actually make this feedback valuable to me?” Then, you can make an informed decision on what to do once you’ve processed it properly.

Investigation is key

Jan Sinclair, Head of Employee Experience at The Centre for Inclusive Leadership, shared a classic situation in one of Elevate Talent’s recent webinars which is a great example of how to handle negative feedback.

Jan was in a meeting where she was delivering a presentation and was told by one of her colleagues, “You aren’t prepared for this.” It was delivered in a tone that felt almost like they were belittling Jan in front of her team.

As you can imagine, an awful lot of things were welling up in Jan. However, she just very calmly asked, “What do you mean by ‘not prepared’ and what area am I specifically not prepared in?” After some further insight into why this feedback was given, Jan was able to calmly inform the colleague that the things she didn’t prepare were deliberate because they were covered in last week’s meeting, when the person wasn’t there!

If Jan had just ignored it and swallowed that feedback and all her emotions, she wouldn’t have had the chance to find out what was really going on.

The person who made the comment had actually got it wrong, but Jan would have never been able to figure this out and turn it into something positive had she not taken a moment to find out more.

Your six honest men and women

At Elevate Talent our mantra is that we are all in the same business – the people business. Business is all about relationships, and by receiving feedback in the right way we can maintain, and even improve, our relationships with the people around us.

Whenever I talk about receiving bad feedback, I’m always reminded of that brilliant poem by Rudyard Kipling that starts:

I keep six honest serving-men [and women!]

(They taught me all I knew); 

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.      

This poem is an ideal example of how we need to look at bad feedback. First, we need to take our six honest serving men and women and use them to find out what’s really behind this feedback.

Try not to worry about it or react impulsively. Instead, put your deerstalker detective hat on, ask your questions and get to the bottom of it.

Here are a few good examples of some questions to ask:

WHAT specifically did you see that made you say that?

WHY did you use those exact words?

WHEN did you first notice this?

HOW can I adapt to make this better?

WHERE did you see me doing this?

WHO are the people who do this better?

Understanding the context of feedback

Understanding the context in which the negative feedback was given is vital for us to get the full picture and not react in that instinctive, emotional way where we might miss something valuable.

These six honest serving men and women will help you get that context, so use them well!

The next part of this beautiful poem is equally important when it comes to how we take on feedback:

I send them over land and sea,

I send them east and west; 

But after they have worked for me,

I give them all a rest.

Once you have got your feedback and asked your questions, give it a rest! You don’t always have to react that instant; sometimes it is best to walk away and then decide what you want to do with it.

You don’t have to react instantly 

You can’t take back what you have already said but you can always go back after 24/48 hours, so don’t put the pressure on yourself to be that quick thinker if that’s not your natural leaning.

Sometimes, those quick thinkers and quick talkers get themselves into trouble!

The thing is, great feedback is always great to hear, but handling bad feedback in a positive and constructive way is a skill we have to work on because the reaction it triggers is a completely natural, emotional reaction.

Those emotions can end up putting us on the defensive and can cloud the way we see things.

That’s not to say that emotions are a bad thing, we have them for a reason. Passion, anger and fear are great emotions to have if we direct them in the right way and trying to stop these emotions altogether is a fool’s errand.

Being pragmatic with feedback

Instead of trying to stop the emotions, focus on the information in front of you with a more pragmatic mindset. Don’t focus on who’s delivering it, focus on how they said it and why they said it.

That way the emotional response will then be a lesser priority in your brain. Our fact-finding mission will engage the logical part of our brain and allow us to get as much value from this feedback as possible.

Like most things, receiving bad feedback is an important skill that takes time and practice to master. Anyone I have ever met who is good at this has learnt how to do it.

Self-awareness is key

The real trick here is to know yourself. Some people need more time to process information and react accordingly, others are more impulsive and can make a decision on this information quicker.

If you’re missing key feedback because you are brushing it off like water off a duck’s back, then you may well be missing out on critical parts. Equally, if you take too long to come back to the person, you may have missed an opportunity too. It’s all about finding that balance.

Dialling up and down 

That’s what we teach at Elevate Talent. It’s all about how to dial up and dial down and get the most out of every interaction, and a big part of that is having really good self-awareness

If we are able to channel these emotions by asking the right questions, at the right time, to the right people, we will pave the way for a far more productive workplace full of new career opportunities.

How do you handle bad feedback? We are always looking for new stories or new ways to tackle this important topic, so feel free to leave us a message with your own ways of getting the most out of feedback

Alternatively, you can learn more about the Elevate programme and the webinars we run by emailing us at

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