It’s inevitable that at some point across your career, you’ll be the unfortunate recipient of negative feedback at work.
If it hasn’t happened to you, well, just wait a little longer.
Negative feedback at work can pop up in a million different ways–and not just during formal annual reviews or performance conversations. It can happen when:
- Your contribution to the project didn’t meet your boss’ expectations, and she tells you.
- Your peer felt left out or disrespected on the project, and he lets you know.
- Your customer or client believed you weren’t truthful with them, and let you know (or fires you).
Or, there’s the most dangerous negative feedback of all:
- A person believes something damaging about you and lets others know, but NOT you.
Careers, egos, and relationships can shatter based on negative feedback at work, especially when we don’t have the tools to handle it.
But here’s the good news. There are three power moves that help handle the negative feedback–whether it’s true or not–and get you moving forward again, fast.
Use these power moves the next time you get negative feedback at work:
Power Move #1: Assume positive intent.
What makes feedback “negative” or “positive”?
You might think I’m crazy to even ask that question. I mean, everybody knows that negative mean something’s bad and positive means something’s good, right??
Let’s say you’ve been working on a team for over a year now, and suddenly, you’re promoted to lead it. You know all those people so well. About a month in, your coworker Matt who now reports to you tells you you’re being a bit of a bully to some of the other teammates.
Is that bad feedback, because bullying is bad behavior?
Or is it great feedback, because Matt trusted you enough to point something out that you might not have seen–and that you now can explore deeper, and if it’s accurate, correct it?
It’s time to assume positive intent.
This means assuming that Matt’s goal is to be helpful–even if it’s hurtful.
This means that when faced with several stories about what might be going on here, you choose the one that trusts Matt is sharing this info because he cares.
Yes, this can be hard–especially if the feedback is surprising or unexpected.
But assuming positive intent puts you back in control.
It allows us to shift our thinking and resist putting our defenses up.
It allows us to see around our blind spots.
Plus, it reminds us that negative feedback at work isn’t really negative–it’s a bonus to help us grow faster.
It takes a lot of guts for someone to speak up and give you direct feedback today. It’s easier to let you limp along, making the same unintentional mistakes. So be grateful for the feedback and rise above the issue to assume positive intent.
Power Move #2: Investigate for truth
When faced with negative feedback at work, our instinct is to do one of two things:
- Hide, or
Resist the urge to do either.
Instead, use the feedback as a catalyst to do your own private investigation to either validate or contradict the feedback.
You CAN handle the truth.
The power move is that you have to be willing to accept either finding.
That means putting yourself purely in discovery or listen mode, open to what you’ll hear without judgement or excuses.
As you identify people you’d like to talk to about the issue, follow the process I’ve outlined here in “How to Ask for Feedback at Work (Who, What, and What to Say).”
And in this case, use special language to clarify what’s been said, and what you’d like to know. For example:
You might get the “oh my–who would EVER think that?” response. Resist giving a broader answer here, but just continue to listen to their observations about their reactions.
OR, you may get the “well, since you mention it. . .” or some other hedge.
Truth is, people aren’t good actors.
You’ll probably know if there’s a bite of reality there–even one that perhaps got blown out of proportion.
Often when we shine a light on a perceived problem, we get to the heart of what the real problem is, and we’re better for it. Initiating these specific, proactive conversations is an incredibly powerful tool no matter what the perceived–or real–offense is.
Power Move #3: Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up (and apologize if you need to)
So after you’ve investigated for truth, follow-up with the original feedback giver, no matter what you discovered.
If you discovered that what they said was true, you can say this:
“Hey, I really heard what you shared about bullying the team. I’ve dug a little deeper and I now see examples of this, so I want to thank you for telling me about it. I apologize that my actions have been seen that way—it was never my intent for anyone to feel bullied. I want to tell you about a couple things I’m doing to get better, and I’d like to ask for your help to catch me when I slip into old habits. Are you game?”
Remember, you are assuming positive intent from this person, and sking for their help as you try on new behaviors is a great way to align them with your success.
But what if the negative feedback they shared doesn’t pan out anywhere else? Here’s what you say:
“Hey, I really heard what you shared about bullying the team. I’ve dug a little deeper and asked others about it, and can’t yet find examples of anyone else sharing this concern. Of course, I want to improve anything that’s not working, but need to know the truth. What’s really going on here, and how can I help?”
Then you shut up and wait for answers.
Let that person squirm and feel uncomfortable.
Often, I find that when someone says “others feel this way,” they’re usually saying “I feel this way.”
So he’ll either tell you the truth, or avoid it.
At least you’ll have better data, including the peace of mind that you’ve checked for your own blind spots first.
Try these power moves the next time you get negative feedback at work. I promise you–there WILL be a next time!
Hey–need more help?
Maybe you’ve heard negative feedback at work and are struggling to correct false perceptions or build better skills. Or maybe you can’t put your finger on what’s not working for you in your career.
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