How to Handle and Respond to Different Types of Negative Feedback

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Hard as we try, humans are not perfect. That means every single person is going to mess up at some point. And that’s ok. In fact, it’s good. If you’re able to do everything perfectly, it usually means you’re headed for boredom and disengagement. A bit of challenge – and making a couple mistakes along the way – is part of the broader career experience and can be incredibly fulfilling over time. However, probably the worst part about messing up (or seeing someone else mess up) is negative feedback. Giving it, receiving it, acting on it, or even just thinking about it can make someone uncomfortable. 

Fundamentally, humans don’t like negative feedback. Some folks have trained themselves incredibly well to take it with grace, but at the end of the day people don’t like being told they are wrong, made a mistake, or to blame for something. 

That said, receiving and acting upon negative feedback is a skill everyone should learn. In this article, we’re diving into what negative feedback can look like in an organization, some negative feedback examples, and how the best practices for handling it when you’re on the receiving end. 

The definition and different types of negative feedback

At its core, negative feedback is people telling you that you need to do better. 

This can come in many forms: 

  • Highlighting where you messed up or missed something. 
  • Bringing up a flaw in your character or personality. 
  • Suggesting you are to blame for something due to negligence or lack of intelligence. 
  • Bringing up a concern that you are causing distress or issues at work. 
  • Or a variety of other forms. 

The challenge with negative reactions and feedback is that they are very easy to take personally, especially if they come from different types of people. 

In coworker feedback, your peer is telling you that you’re messing up. That can hurt, especially since you’re at the same level.

If you receive negative customer feedback, you risk losing a business relationship that can harm the business (or cost you a job in the long-run). 

Negative manager feedback can be tough for an employee because your manager is usually the person in charge of your upward mobility in the company. 

Or if you are a leader and receive negative employee feedback, that’s a signal that your management style is off – which could cause a lot of issues. 

Finally, there’s data-based feedback, where it’s not a human telling you anything but cold, hard, impossible-to-debate data. This can be particularly hurtful, since it can feel like you’re not allowed to defend yourself against the accusations.

Negative feedback examples

The most common negative feedback examples are about performance and meeting expectations. There’s also a second category, which is more about someone’s character and personality. 

Performance-based negative feedback examples

  • You did not meet expectations. 
  • You did not set expectations properly. 
  • Collaboration fell apart and the quality of work suffered as a result.
  • Projects came in late or over-budget. 
  • Quotas or goals were not met. 
  • Planning was low quality and that caused a last-minute rush. 

Personality-based negative feedback examples

  • A rude comment made someone else uncomfortable. 
  • Someone may perceive your behavior as bullying. 
  • Individual values may not align with the company’s values. 
  • Your actions (or reactions) in a situation were poor.

All of these examples can strike pain, fear, and defensiveness in people. It’s not a fun thing to hear when someone tells you – in detail – something you did wrong.

Rules for handling feedback

We’ll all be in a situation where someone is delivering negative feedback to us. Here’s how to handle it. 

Focus on facts only: It can be easy to fall into the “I don’t like how you said that” trap when responding to negative criticism. Do your absolute best to focus only on the facts. If you need to, reiterate the facts as you understand them and seek clarification. 

Ask for action items, but don’t worry if you don’t get them: Ideally, someone can tell you exactly what’s necessary to solve a problem or get over an issue. However, sometimes people won’t – or can’t – provide action items. Your job is to ensure that you ask for action items, but at the same time don’t stress if the other person can’t provide them. In that case, explain that you’ll identify the next steps on your own, but will need a bit of time to sort your thoughts out. Then let them know they can always come to you with ideas if they have them and you’d be open to hearing them. 

Assume best intent: Regardless of if someone means to be hurtful when delivering feedback, assume best intent. Assume they just want you to improve and they care about you deeply. Even if that’s not true, you’ll be more able to focus on the facts and get to action items without the emotions that can arise from thinking someone hates you.

Let it digest; don’t instantly act: It’s tempting to solve the problem right away, but that isn’t usually the best course of action. Instead, let all the information digest and then plan your next action. Sometimes you do need to act quickly – for instance, with an apology in a situation of hurt feelings – but the larger corrective or restorative actions can usually wait a day to let everyone take in what just happened.

Don’t let yourself be bullied in return: For some people, giving negative feedback is a power exercise. Unfortunately, you will likely run into people who just seem to enjoy tearing people down. The criticism they are delivering to you might be valid, but that doesn’t excuse them from being rude or bullying you with the information. If you’re feeling bullied, you can revert the conversation back to the facts and necessary action items, then wrap up the meeting quickly.  

Don’t take it personally: This is likely the most difficult rule, but it’s critical. You have to take the comments as they come for the instance they are about – this is not about your worth as a person. 

Feedback is a good thing

At the end of the day, taking in negative criticism can be a huge win. We learn something about ourselves, we learn the types of people we like and don’t, and we learn more about how to deliver feedback based on how you felt as the receiver. 

As you strive to do great work, know that sometimes you’re going to mess up. Don’t be afraid of feedback – seek it out. The more you seek it out throughout the process of creating, the less likely things are to go wrong. But when they do, don’t fear negative feedback either. See it for what it can be: a chance to get better.