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Receiving Negative Feedback

Why we may avoid it and how to deal.

Key points

  • Negative feedback can be a hard pill to swallow.
  • With the right mindset and method of providing feedback, we can view negative feedback as a positive opportunity for growth.
  • Reframing your thoughts of what negative feedback means and how it serves you is a good starting point.

We have all encountered it and it is something that we will inevitably encounter again. Solicited or unsolicited, delivered with intention or haphazardly, negative feedback is an unavoidable experience. How we choose to view and process negative feedback, however, is the dividing line between deriving benefit from it versus failing to put valuable information to good use.

Why We May Avoid Negative Feedback

It is safe to say that most people do not enjoy hearing a lot of negative feedback. Having your areas of weakness or areas of substandard performance pointed out to you by someone else is not exactly a pleasant experience. However, if negative feedback is being provided in order to strengthen our deficits and better ourselves, then why is it still hard to hear? Researchers postulate that negative feedback is linked to feelings of emotional exhaustion and identity threat brought on by shame. Our brains may see negative feedback as a threat that needs to be countered and resisted (O’Malley & Gregory, 2011). Studies further explain that this shame occurs when one’s actions deviate from standards with which they associate with self-identity, and when one attributes these deviations to their own perceived inherent flaws (Daniels & Robinson, 2019; Xing, Sun, & Jepsen, 2021). This can threaten one’s self-esteem and belief in their own capabilities (Audia & Locke, 2003).

Conditions That May Further Complicate Our Ability to Embrace Negative Feedback

While internal factors such as distorted thinking and tendencies to frame negative feedback around personal rather than behavioral or performance attributes may make it hard to digest, other external factors may contribute to difficulty receiving negative feedback, as well. The most notable of these external factors is feedback approach and delivery. Facets of this include the following:

  • Feedback deliverer and environment: When negative feedback is delivered by someone whom we deem untrustworthy or unqualified, we will push back or dismiss it. We may deem someone as incompetent, unlikeable, or immoral, which can also impact our reception and openness to hearing what they have to say about our performance. In addition, if negative feedback is delivered in a public or demeaning manner, our shame mechanisms will kick in, causing aggression, withdrawal, or shame (Audia & Locke, 2003).
  • Feedback dosage: When negative feedback outweighs positive feedback, we tend to dismiss it or feel a sense of hopelessness when it comes to creating positive change. When it comes to feedback, we need balance (Audia & Locke, 2003).
  • Feedback specificity: General or ambiguous feedback tends to be more hurtful than helpful, as it can lead to misinterpretation, confusion, frustration, or lack of follow-through (Audia & Locke, 2003). If we do not receive specific negative feedback, we do not know what to do with it or how to move forward productively. Moreover, we may possibly internalize generalized feedback as a personal failure (Daniels & Robinson, 2019).
  • Feedback injustice: If we perceive negative feedback as unjustified, the shame may cause our ego defenses to kick in, causing us to place blame on others rather than looking inward (Daniels & Robinson, 2019). According to researchers, feedback and shame injustice occur when (1) the shame created by negative feedback outweighs the actions that led to the negative feedback itself, and (2) the negative feedback is provided in a manner that is humiliating or shameful (Daniels & Robinson, 2019). In addition, perceived feedback injustice may occur when we receive inaccurate or unconstructive feedback (O’Malley & Gregory, 2011).

Embracing and Benefiting From Negative Feedback

Depending on how it is provided and/or how we frame it, negative feedback can be constructive and beneficial. Tips to reap the benefits of negative feedback include the following:

Framing negative feedback in a way that benefits us: If you currently dread the idea of receiving negative feedback, reframing your thoughts of what negative feedback means and how it serves you would be a good starting point. Regardless of how it is delivered (providing negative feedback is not something we are typically trained in and the act of doing so can therefore be uncomfortable, emotional, and awkward for most), negative feedback is typically meant to serve the person receiving it. Remember that negative feedback is just as important, if not more important, than positive feedback. It provides you with (a) little gems of truth that you can then use to better yourself and/or your performance, (b) a jumpoff point for informative and reflective conversations with the receiver, and (c) a clearer understanding of expectations. Therefore, you should view negative feedback as stepping stones to betterment. You can use information gathered from this feedback to create personalized action plans, while at the same time, dismissing or engaging in curious respectful conversations with the receiver about any information that you deem inaccurate or unclear.

Ensuring we receive negative feedback in a manner that suits our needs: As stated earlier, providing negative feedback can be uncomfortable, emotional, and awkward. Most of us are not formally trained in how to effectively provide negative feedback or how to recognize the receiver’s communication style in order to meet them where they need to be met. As a consequence, it is up to us to (a) recognize when the manner in which negative feedback is provided is a trigger for us, (b) determine exactly which components of the feedback provider’s approach are negatively impacting us, and (c) either work on ourselves if these triggers are attributed to distorted thoughts, mindset, or other internal factors or work with the feedback provider to ensure future feedback communications are beneficial and positive for all. If it is determined that discussing the provider’s feedback approach is the best option, you may want to consider asking them to work on

  • Providing clear, specific, and accurate thoughts of behaviors (not personal attributes) that the provider feels could use some support
  • Offering concrete guidance on how to strengthen the perceived need or area of growth
  • Providing you with feedback that is meaningful to you and extends your current knowledge (Audia & Locke, 2003)
  • Expressing optimism and the belief that you can and will make strides
  • Being cognizant of environment and procedure to ensure that the manner is respectful and demonstrates worthiness (Daniels & Robinson, 2019)
  • Using positive psychology-derived methods such as appreciative inquiry, learning goals, and empathy to ensure you feel safe and open to new information

Negative feedback may be uncomfortable at times. However, with the right mindset and the correct approach by the feedback provider, we can view this feedback as a positive and use it to grow.

References

Audia, P. G., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Benefiting from negative feedback. Human Resource Management Review, 13(4), 631– 646. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/10.1016/j.hrmr.2003.11.006

Daniels, M. A., & Robinson, S. L. (2019). The Shame of It All: A Review of Shame in Organizational Life. Journal of Management, 45(6), 2448–2473. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206318817604

O'Malley, A. L., & Gregory, J. B. (2011). Don't be such a downer: Using positive psychology to enhance the value of negative feedback. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 14(4), 247– 264. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/10.1080/10887156.2011.621776

Xing, L., Sun, J. (James), & Jepsen, D. (2021). Feeling shame in the workplace: Examining negative feedback as an antecedent and performance and well‐being as consequences. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 42(9), 1244–1260. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2553

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