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Why You Feel So Threatened By Negative Feedback (And How To Handle It Better)

What's worse than critical feedback? No feedback at all.

Feedback rules everything around us. Whether it’s talking to your customers about what features they want or getting feedback from your boss, we all benefit when we step out of our own heads and hear what others think.

But feedback can’t be limited to just back slaps and high-fives. Negative feedback is just as, and sometimes even more important than its more positive counterpart.

Negative feedback helps steer you back on the right path. It helps you see projects and tasks from a different perspective. And maybe even most importantly, it helps you learn, grow, and improve everything from your own skills to the project you’re currently working on.

In fact, 92% of people in one study said that negative feedback is effective at improving workplace performance.

But just because getting (and giving) negative feedback is so important doesn’t mean we’re very good at it.

So how can we learn to quiet the voice inside of us that freaks out and make the most of these critical moments?

Why you feel so threatened by negative feedback

If we know negative feedback will ultimately benefit us, why is our gut reaction to freak out, push back, or ignore it?

The problem is twofold.

First, too many of us connect our work to our identity. We see our work not just as a means to an end, but as a representation of who we are as an individual.

When we do this, it means that negative feedback isn’t just a critique of your work but a criticism of you as a person.

In fact, according to research by Harvard, when people receive negative feedback at work, they’re more likely to reshape their personal networks and avoid the colleagues who have been critical of us. This is called confirmation bias seeking—in an effort to protect our ego, we surround ourselves only with people who tell us what we want to hear.

However, it’s not just our identity that we feel at risk when we get negative feedback.

We’re hardwired to see criticism as a threat to our very survival.

You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response before. Simply put, this is the psychological reaction that occurs when we’re faced with a perceived attack or harmful event.

Yet, while this was a powerful tool for saving us from tigers and bears and all types of predators in the past, today, our mind reacts the same way to mental threats.

When your boss comes into say that you missed the mark on a project or your work is subpar, you feel threatened in the same way that you would when faced with a predator. Your stress levels spike and your mind screams, get me out of here!

Negative feedback threatens us both physically and emotionally so it’s no wonder we work so hard to avoid it. However, if you want to do your best work, you need to get past those automatic responses and see negative feedback for what it really is.

What’s worse than critical feedback? No feedback at all.

The first way to do this is by reframing what negative feedback and criticism really are.

In the workplace, criticism isn’t a threat; it’s a superpower.

Who wouldn’t want to know where they’ve missed the mark and can improve?

In The Power of Feedback, Joseph Folkman cuts to the core of how we should view negative feedback:

Receiving negative feedback does not mean I am the worst person that ever lived. It only means that someone cares enough to tell me how to improve. If we really dislike someone, the last thing we would do is tell them how to improve.

Hiding from negative feedback or shying away from giving it hurts everyone around you. So how do you learn to give (and get) better negative feedback?

What to do when receiving negative feedback: The Dos and Don’ts of how to properly accept criticism

Giving negative feedback can be awkward and uncomfortable, but receiving it is even worse.

There’s a delicate balancing act that takes place when you get negative feedback. On one hand, you want to listen and learn how you can improve. While on the other, you want to protect your ego and defend your actions.

While some people will be better than others at feedback delivery, you also need to learn how to effectively listen to negative feedback. Here are some of the biggest do’s and don’ts on how to receive (and benefit from) negative feedback.

Don’t: React right away

The first thing you need to do once you’ve heard the feedback is to tell yourself to be quiet.

There’s a good chance that during the feedback session you started to feel somewhere between mildly and extremely defensive. And that’s ok. However, you can’t act on those impulses.

Instead, take a deep breath, thank them for bringing the issue to your attention, and then tell them you need time to think it through and come up with a plan. For example:

“Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Let me get back to you by EOD once I’ve had some time to think through it.”

While the person giving you feedback may want to discuss it right away, it’s completely in your rights to take time to think it through. If the goal of negative feedback is for everyone to improve, then you should have time to step back and learn from it.

Don’t: Take it personally

If the negative feedback caught you by surprise, your ego will probably feel especially bruised. With so much of our identity wrapped up in our work, it’s easy to take any criticism personally.

But negative feedback should be objective. It should be about outputs and actions. Not you as an individual. And even if it’s not delivered that way, you should try to reframe it yourself.

Don’t dwell on the negativity. Instead, focus on how you can move forward from it. How can you spin it in a positive light and grow from this experience?

Don’t: Try to justify, deflect, or ignore it

Not taking negative feedback personally doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own the feedback, however. Don’t brush off the feedback or spin it in a way that you won’t grow and learn from it.

This is easier said than done. Author and CEO, Peter Bregman put together a list of all the ways we spin negative feedback to coincide with our own beliefs.

  • Play Victim: “Yes, that’s true, but it’s not my fault.”
  • Take Pride: “Yes, that’s true, but it’s a good thing.”
  • Minimize: “It’s really not such a big deal.”
  • Deny: “I don’t do that!”
  • Avoid: “I don’t need this job!”
  • Blame: “The problem is the people around me. I hire badly.”
  • Counter: “There are lots of examples of me acting differently.”
  • Attack: “I may have done this (an awful thing), but you did this (another awful thing).”
  • Negate: “You don’t really know anything about X.”
  • Deflect: “That’s not the real issue.”
  • Invalidate: “I’ve asked others and nobody agrees with the feedback.”
  • Joke: “I never knew I was such a jerk.”
  • Exaggerate: “This is terrible, I’m really awful.”

Don’t: Always wait for others to offer up feedback

It might seem weird to ask for negative feedback. However, being explicit and upfront with what criticism you want puts you in control of it. You set the parameters and the schedule.

As Peter Gray says, unsolicited advice is rarely taken well:

“It’s important to recognize that it’s human nature not to want unsolicited negative advice. We don’t want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it and are ready to hear it.”

Instead, create more regular opportunities to receive negative feedback. This could be during 1-on-1 meetings, performance reviews, or standups.

Do: Take time to gather your thoughts and not get overwhelmed

Once you’ve walked away to think through the feedback you can’t let your brain get away from you. As psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains, our brains love to overgeneralize.

If your brain makes you worry that ‘people’ will judge you, ‘everyone’ will think badly, or ‘someone’ will yell at you, ask yourself who, exactly?

Specify who or what you’re worried about. Write down the exact names of who is impacted by this issue (in most cases it’s not ‘everyone’ but more likely just ‘one’ person.)

Do: Ask for explicit feedback and clarification

Instead of running back to the safety of your office after getting negative feedback, ask for more. Once you’ve cleared your head go back and think through the main points. Do they make sense or was it completely unexpected?

If you felt like it came out of nowhere, circle back and ask for clarification. Was there something you missed? Were expectations not properly set?

In most cases, the person who gave you the feedback will appreciate the effort you took in following up.

Do: Set expectations for what kind of feedback you’re looking for

One of the easiest ways for good feedback to turn bad is when expectations aren’t aligned. If I send you a wireframe when you’re expecting a pixel-perfect mockup, we’re probably going to have some words.

One of the best ways to do this is to use the 30/90 rule. Are you asking for feedback at 30% done (i.e. structural changes, broad feedback, angle)? Or are you asking at 90% (i.e. right before you’re ready to go to production)?

Whether positive or negative, feedback is the best way to grow, improve, and learn

In electrical engineering, negative feedback is when part of a system’s output is fed back into it and reduces the fluctuations in future output. In other words, it’s a balancing measure that keeps a system stable and in one place.

However, in the workplace, negative feedback has the opposite effect.

Rather than keep you still, it helps you grow, learn, and improve. When you feed criticism and negative feedback into your personal skills, you gain the insights you need to continue growing.

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