Handling Negative Feedback: Turning Criticism into Career Growth

24 Jun 2024

When our team appreciates our work or applauds us for a job well done, we feel proud, joyful, and inspired. Having a team that celebrates our wins and keeps us motivated to do even better is key to happiness and long-lasting work satisfaction.

However, to grow in our career, cheer and admiration are not enough. We also need people who can point out our faults, highlight our flaws, and help us see our imperfections.

Our team members who spend a large amount of time working with us are best positioned to give this feedback. They can notice how we talk to others, handle disagreements, deal with challenges, and work under time pressure. They can see what we can’t see ourselves—our subtle destructive behaviors that are often not visible to us are clearly evident to them.

Negative feedback, however good it may be for our growth, is hard to accept. Our default instincts treat negative feedback as a threat, which alerts our brain and sends us into a fight or flight mode—we either get defensive and try to prove others wrong or take the feedback personally and completely shut down.

Feedback is even harder to digest when it comes from a team member. When a team member points out gaps in our skills or things we aren’t good at, it’s hard not to retaliate. We want to look good. We want to prove our worth. Negative feedback makes us assume others think we are incompetent and they don’t like us anymore.

Feelings of shame from falling short of expectations or anger from facing the reality of our situation make us avoid negative feedback. Negative emotions discolor our ability to think clearly and prevent us from putting effort in place to bridge gaps in our skills and abilities.

\How you respond to negative feedback determines how comfortable your team member feels in giving it. These 6 practices can enable you to embrace negative feedback from your team and channel it into a medium for learning and growth.

Those who handle feedback more fruitfully have an identity story with a different assumption at its core. These folks see themselves as ever evolving, ever growing. They have what is called a “growth” identity. How they are now is simply how they are now. It’s a pencil sketch of a moment in time, not a portrait in oil and gilded frame. Hard work matters; challenge and even failure are the best ways to learn and improve. Inside a growth identity, feedback is valuable information about where one stands now and what to work on next. It is welcome input rather than upsetting verdict.

— Douglas Stone

Don’t respond immediately

When your team member points out a mistake or gives you tough feedback, you may feel the urge to respond immediately. But speaking up instantly after receiving negative feedback is a big mistake.

Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, once said, “Between the stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In other words, pausing and taking time to process the negative feedback is a smart strategy because it gives you control and makes you choose a more deliberate response.

When you fill silence with words, it’s not your rational thinking but the default part of your brain taking over. Leaving decision-making to your brain on autopilot in such moments triggers harmful reactions—you may get mad, show anger, burst into tears, or even shout at them.

Pausing and analyzing the feedback creates an opportunity to separate signal from noise, look beyond their words to their intent, and think about how they might be right in calling out your mistakes, areas of learning, or things you can improve upon.

When you get negative feedback from a team member, take time to make sense of it:

*Please give me a moment to think about your feedback.*

I need to think about what you just said. Can I get back to you tomorrow to discuss this further?

Acting with intention instead of reacting to negative feedback gives way to a healthy conversation. Pause. Think. Then act.

Express openness and curiosity.

Our mind is good at telling us stories that align with our beliefs and expectations. If we believe we are right and the other person is wrong, our mind will look for evidence to justify that belief while rejecting all contradicting evidence that disproves it. \

Confirmation bias is deeply ingrained in our mind, and most of us don’t even realize how it impacts the way we think, decide, collaborate, and work with others.

Not only are we subject to cognitive biases, we also frequently seek out things that reinforce them. We interpret facts through the prism of our beliefs; we read the newspapers and seek the company of people who will confirm us in those beliefs; and thus we stick obstinately to these beliefs, whether or not they are correct.

— Jean Tirole

Receiving negative feedback from a team member can trigger this bias, making it harder for us to get in touch with reality. We may show disapproval through our hand gestures, facial expressions, or tone of voice. Our body language, which is not visible to us, can communicate closed-mindedness and rigidity without us saying a word.

Handling negative feedback well requires getting rid of this bias. You can do this by asking these questions:

  1. How could I be biased in my thinking?
  2. What evidence does not support my beliefs?
  3. What are other possible ways to interpret this feedback?
  4. How can I demonstrate openness and curiosity?

Others feel at ease giving negative feedback when you demonstrate a willingness to take feedback seriously and reflect calmness and poise in your body language. Learning to tackle cognitive distortions that get in the way of your thinking is a great strategy to do this.

Seek better clarity

Good feedback delivered poorly can be distracting, irritating, and can even make us anxious. When we can’t make complete sense of another person’s feedback, their words can go in circles in our minds. We may overthink to the point of rumination or stress about what they mean.

Instead of passing complete responsibility of getting accurate feedback to others, take some responsibility in your own hands.

Just because the feedback giver is not adept at delivering feedback properly does not make their inputs invalid. Seek clarity on feedback to take charge of your own learning and growth.

To do this, ask them these questions:

  1. Can you elaborate on your feedback so that I can ensure I get it right?
  2. Is there something I did recently where you observed this behavior?
  3. Can you give me an example to help me understand this better?
  4. Can you explain what you mean by [xyz]?
  5. Have you observed me doing this multiple times, or do you think it’s a one-off instance?
  6. What impact do you think my behavior has on others?
  7. What changes would you make if you were in my place?
  8. This is what I understand you’re saying [paraphrase]. Is my understanding correct?

To ask the 'right' question is far more important than to receive the answer. The solution of a problem lies in the understanding of the problem; the answer is not outside the problem, it is in the problem.

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

Asking questions helps you make sense of feedback—knowing what you’re doing wrong or not doing at all gives you an opportunity to put corrections into place.

Don’t assume they’re right

Workplaces are filled with people who like to give feedback even when it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t add any value. They believe they’re doing others a favor even when all they’re doing is wasting their time.

There’s an upside to having critics all around us—it is easy to get feedback on almost anything. But there’s a downside, too. Very few people actually care to give you valuable feedback and will put in the effort to add value to your life. Most get away with a fleeting comment without much thought placed on intention and the value it serves the other person.

People’s own beliefs, perceptions, and expectations also play a vital role in how they perceive your actions. So, while feedback is important, not all feedback applies to you, and not all feedback is right. Learning to separate signals from noise is a very useful skill to build at work.

A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.

— Brene Brown

Out of many who criticize your work for no reason, there’s usually one with valuable feedback and the uncomfortable truth you need to hear. You possibly don’t want to lose that nugget of wisdom. That one piece of advice can be a major driver of growth—something that will push you ahead in your career, help you see the reality of your situation, and make you implement corrective action to move closer to your goals.

If you care about growth, open the doors and look outside, but be selective about who you let in and who you leave out.

It’s not personal

There are two ways to look at negative feedback:

  1. It’s about our actions and behaviors.
  2. It’s about us—who we are.

\When we attach feedback to our identity, our ego gets involved and shouts back at us. Ego is designed to treat negative feedback as a personal attack. It tells us that the other person is mean and harmful and that we need to protect ourselves and fight back.

Ego puts a wall between what we believe to be true and what is true, which prevents us from seeing the other side. Taking feedback personally prevents us from making any changes because our ego tells us that we are perfect and blinds us from seeing our flaws.

To know how we come across to others or how we work and act, our ego needs to be pushed aside.

You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.

— Ryan Holiday

To do this, ask these questions:

  1. Am I taking this feedback personally?
  2. How is my ego getting involved?
  3. What is my ego blocking me from seeing?

Replacing ego with humility can unlock your hidden potential and help you become the absolute best possible version of yourself.

Give and take

One of the reasons you may cringe at the idea of getting negative feedback is that you never put any effort into giving it to others. The feedback process doesn’t appear scary or difficult once you make it part of everyday work and look at it from the perspective of the feedback giver.

When you help others improve by sharing areas where they can do better, you realize how valuable it is as a tool. Being on the other side of the table opens up a whole new world of possibilities—better relationships, better understanding, and more growth.

Experience alone is not enough. It isn’t automatic. You must get feedback and introspect and slowly your values get crystallized. It’s a fun journey and a wonderful place to be. Because it’s all about knowing yourself and the world around you and that knowledge is true power.

— Binod Shankar

Speaking up your mind and sharing your opinion with others, pointing out what your team members are doing wrong or where they can do better, inspires them to open up too—they feel comfortable in giving you negative feedback once they know how much you value it.

Stop seeing feedback as a one-sided road and start treating it as a two-way street. Give feedback with compassion and use gratitude to receive it. Feedback from your team can be incredibly powerful in standing out at work and helping you succeed in life.

\Summing up with this thought from Doc Rivers, “Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth.”

Which one are you?


  1. Positive feedback from your team is essential for your well-being, while negative feedback from them is critical to your growth.
  2. When your team member points out gaps or things you aren’t good at, not knowing how to process them can make it hard for you to take feedback constructively.
  3. Your brain on autopilot is bound to react to negative feedback. It can make you harsh, mean, or rude. The first step to handling negative feedback well is to pause and take time to think through the feedback instead of responding to it immediately.
  4. Your biases and cognitive distortions make it hard for you to accept anything that contradicts how you view yourself. They make you collect evidence that matches your belief while rejecting anything that contradicts it. Catching your biased thinking and expressing curiosity can give way to a more balanced and rational approach.
  5. When you don’t understand negative feedback, it can wreak havoc in your mind. Seeking clarity by asking great questions can lead to useful insights that can enable you to act on it.
  6. While feedback is a great tool to learn and improve, a lot of feedback you receive is noise—neither does it help you improve nor does it help you move forward. Don’t entertain feedback from everyone, and don’t let all feedback go to your heart.
  7. Your ego can’t sit silent when negative feedback is involved. Don’t let your ego control your behavior because it can make you blind to your flaws.
  8. You can’t appreciate the value of feedback if you never put any effort into giving it to others. By treating it as a give-and-take relationship, you can create a feedback-rich environment and encourage others to speak up, too.

This story was previously published here. Follow me on LinkedIn or here for more stories.