How to Respond to Negative Feedback and Criticism at Work and School

Apr 15, 2021

By ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson

A student in my mentorship program recently asked me, “How should I respond to negative feedback?” Everyone at some point in their career is going to get constructive criticism or negative feedback from a superior, a professor, a client, or a colleague. Even for those who consistently work hard and maintain a positive attitude, it’s inevitable that you’ll receive critique in a performance evaluation or peer review, fail a paper, get a snarky comment in a meeting, or have a personal conflict that occurs in the workplace or at school. No one likes to receive negative feedback but believe me, it’s normal – we are all human! But how you respond to criticism will influence whether you’ll be successful in navigating workplace politics or if that criticism will hold you back from achieving your potential. 

The question is, how do you respond to negative feedback and turn it into a positive situation? I’m going to share with you my thoughts on how to make the most of negative feedback so that you can keep progressing in your career and toward achieving your biggest goals.

#1 Don’t immediately react

In the moment when someone is providing you constructive criticism or negative feedback, your first reaction might be anger or defensiveness. But it’s important to develop the ability to not react and to momentarily disconnect from the emotions that are dredged up from that type of feedback. The reason is, if someone’s providing you negative feedback and you immediately react with anger, defensiveness or overwhelming sadness, it won’t improve that person’s opinion of the situation. It will only make the situation worse and will reaffirm for the reviewer that the criticism was justified. 

When someone is providing constructive or negative feedback, listen carefully to what’s being said, let them speak out completely without interruption, take a deep breath (or several), and thank them for their comments. If they then ask you how you feel about the information that’s been provided, tell them that you want to take some time to think about your response and that you would be open to speaking further about it the following day or later in the week. Do this especially if you feel like you’re beginning to crumble emotionally or if you want to react defensively. 

When you don’t immediately react, it doesn’t signal that their opinions were justified. It sends the signal that you’re being respectful and that you’re thinking carefully about what was said.

#2 Regroup

Before responding or providing any defense or justification for your own feelings or thoughts on the matter, take some quiet time to really consider all the points that were made and all perspectives. We will often find ourselves in situations where we are misunderstood or where problems emerged due to factors that were out of our control. Negative feedback could also stem from the fact that someone simply doesn’t like your personality or your identity. These things are not your fault, but there is a perception that there is something that was within your control that went awry, and that’s what you need to address. 

First, you need to be willing to acknowledge if you’ve dropped the ball, if you are the source of a conflict, or if things didn’t go as planned due to some step you took or didn’t take. The first step in achieving conflict resolution is taking personal responsibility for the things that are within our control.

When you do that, you’ll have a few things to start the conversation with, areas where you can say “I could have done this better or done that better”. That will start the conversation on a note that says I’m taking your constructive criticism seriously and I’m considering all angles. This does not mean you’re taking full responsibility for everything that went wrong. It just means that you’re taking personal responsibility for the things you were actually in control of. Really take the time to consider the other person’s perspective to identify the points that are true. 

Also remember that no matter what happened, your identity and your personal self worth are not defined by the situation or the criticism at hand. If you truly did your best, you have to reconfirm mentally that you did your best, even if the outcome was not what you had hoped. And if you didn’t do your best, then you have to be willing to admit to that. There is always tomorrow, and there’s always another opportunity to do better. 

#3 Prepare your response to the criticism

When we feel immediately angry or defensive about negative criticism, it’s because we believe that there was something that was outside of our control or that we were misunderstood or unfairly blamed. And if that’s truly the case after regrouping and thinking through the situation, you should put yourself into the position to provide more detail as to what actually happened. It’s important to take the step but to do it with a clear head and the self-confidence that you did your best. 

As I said, consider a way to start the conversation with some acknowledgment of the things that were in your control that went awry, even if it’s something very small. But the next part of the discussion should be about what actually happened and the purpose is to provide factual information about how you approached the situation and how you handled it, and provide some evidence as to why that is true. 

Then, allow the other person to take the time to react to the things that you’re saying. Allow them to take the time to regroup and respond carefully and thoughtfully. Don’t speak for 30 minutes without interruption–give them a chance to ask questions and further consider what they don’t understand. Just like you, they may not immediately respond. Or they themselves may respond defensively. But the ball is now in their court and the way they respond will be very telling as to whether you’ll be able to continue in that organization and ultimately be successful, or whether this will be an ongoing, uphill battle with this particular person. 

Finally, ask for specific steps that you can take to improve the situation.

The goal of this conversation is to figure out if there is a way to improve your situation. If the reviewer is not providing concrete steps on how you can improve the situation, then it’s unlikely that the feedback you receive in the future is going to get better, no matter what you do. You do need to know exactly what you need to do to change the outcome to the positive. If they can’t or won’t provide that, that’s not your fault! It’s just information that signals to you that it’s time to find a better place to work as soon as possible.

#4 Stay calm

People in power positions who need to provide constructive criticism or negative feedback expect you to be unhappy with the criticism. They expect that you’ll be disappointed in yourself, angry, defensive, or even apathetic. However, these are not the responses that you want to give them if you truly want to improve the situation and increase your chances of achieving success in that organization. 

People who stay cool, calm and collected under pressure are the people who prove that they have the resilience and emotional maturity to handle the never-ending challenges that come with working in any corporate, non-profit, government or academic institution. That is exactly what leaders are looking for, even those who are not driven by the best interests of their staff or stakeholders. Staying calm is the ultimate signal of self-confidence. Being calm will disarm the assumptions of the reviewer and immediately puts you in a better light, without you saying a thing! But staying calm is a skill that you have to practice and learn, it’s not something that comes easily to most people. (And don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not always able to stay calm. Like I said, we are human!)

I just want to note that staying calm does not mean ignoring or suppressing your feelings of sadness, disappointment or anger. It’s simply to help you stay in control of a situation where there are factors that are out of your control, like the opinions of others. 

If you feel yourself constantly upset, angry or disappointed at work, first you need to find an outlet for those feelings through speaking with friends, family, a coach, or even a counselor. 

Second, you need to acknowledge that you’re not in a workplace that’s going to help you thrive and grow as a professional. If steps to improve the situation are not yielding the results you need, it’s time to move on. Because at the end of the day, not everything is within your control. You’re probably not going to be able to turn around a truly toxic workplace, change the opinion of a boss who doesn’t like your personality or identity, or change the makeup of the team that you have to work with. Moving on from something that’s not working isn’t a failure, it’s a recognition that there is something better for you out there and that your skills and perspectives will make a better and bigger impact elsewhere.

Stay strong my friends! Rejection and negative feedback is part of the journey to success. No matter what, the ProFellow community is here rooting for you!

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Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, her signature online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

© Victoria Johnson / ProFellow, LLC 2021, all rights reserved