Receiving Tough Feedback

Updated: May 8, 2019

You are allowed to feel dissuaded, defeated, hurt, or angry when you receive tough feedback. The key is in how you react, how you interact, and what you do next.

It can be difficult, no matter who you are, to accept and receive feedback in the workplace. We're told to be good at accepting positive/constructive criticism, but it is criticism nonetheless and that makes it hard to accept. Typically, it's because of our egos, or our pride in our work that we get defensive or we feel personally invalidated when we receive feedback. When you put hours of hard work into a project (or your role!) only to be told that you didn't do it correctly or that it requires some changes, that can be hard to swallow. And that's okay! You are entitled to your own feelings and they are valid, no matter what your reaction is expected to be. That right there is the key, however, to receiving feedback. You are allowed to feel dissuaded, defeated, hurt, or angry when you receive tough feedback. The key is in how you react, how you interact, and what you do next.

The key is in how you react, how you interact, and what you do next.

This goes even for performance based feedback and coaching. It can be difficult to be told that you're doing something wrong, even if you know you have been doing something wrong, because as humans and professionals we don't want to be called out on our behavioral trends or issues. It can be embarrassing, hurtful, or downright unpleasant. But, with the correct reaction, interaction, and next steps it doesn't have to be as bad.

Let's talk about this in depth and create a scenario, based on a real interaction. Sarah is the Reservations Manager of a local resort, and she holds weekly touch base meetings with her agents to provide timely coaching and feedback. One of the agents is Steve, who has been in the Reservations department for 5 years and with the resort for over 10 years. Sarah has only been with the resort for a few months, but she brings in a decade of experience and is passionate about the company and her agent's success.

When Sarah had her first touch base with Steve, he had mentioned that he had applied to her position when it was posted prior to her hiring, and that he felt it was unfair for the resort to bring in an outsider and ignore his tenure. At that time, Sarah let Steve know that if he is interested in moving up she will do everything she can to help prepare him for this next step in his career. Steve lets Sarah know that he appreciates it, but that with his time spent at the resort he knows he will move up anyway.

He is most often working on e-mail inquiries from guests, and she has noticed that he is reluctant to call guests when they have asked for someone to call them.

In looking at Steve's stats, Sarah sees that Steve is frequently unavailable to take calls. He is most often working on e-mail inquiries from guests, and she has noticed that he is reluctant to call guests when they have asked for someone to call them. Steve also displays call avoidance behavior and will walk away from his desk when calls are holding. Sarah also notices in historical time clock data that Steve is frequently late to work, takes long lunches, and leaves early. Since this behavior spans months, even before Sarah was the manager, Sarah decides to meet with Steve regarding these trends so she can help him get back on track.

When Sarah brings up the behaviors that she would like to see Steve change, Steve gets angry telling Sarah that she hasn't been there long enough to have the right to coach him and walks out; abandoning his shift and leaving for the day. That afternoon, Steve has a chance to think about things and realizes that Sarah is right. He calls Sarah to apologize for his behavior, however, Sarah lets him know that while the apology is appreciated he will be put on a written warning for the trends and behavior that he showed, but that she still wants to help him reach his goals and move forward from the situation. Steve decides to quit, angrily stating that someone with his tenure should not be written up for such a small infraction. This effectively ended his 10 year career with the resort and ruined his chance for a positive reference or promotion within the resort, all because he had a knee-jerk reaction.

This effectively ended his 10 year career with the resort, and ruined his chance for a positive reference or promotion.

There are a few things that stand out in this scenario. First, Steve shows behavior indicating that he believes his tenure outweighs all other aspects of his work ethic. He also seems resentful that Sarah got the management position instead of him. Secondly, Steve is quick to become defensive and angry when he is coached on the things he needs to change but seems to cool off after taking some time to think. Let's put this into a 3 step review:

1. How did Steve React? Steve reacted to feedback angrily. He walked away from his shift, creating another issue for himself in regards to his performance. Not only did he cost the resort money by increasing the number of calls and emails that went unanswered that day, he lost out on commission. Additionally, Steve acted with disrespect towards his direct supervisor and displayed insubordination.

2. How did Steve interact? Steve did not converse. Instead of having a conversation with Sarah, he got angry and walked away from the situation. Steve also started his interactions with Sarah at the beginning a little aggressively by mentioning he had wanted her job and didn't appreciate "outsiders."

3. What did Steve do next? Steve went home and had time to think, and then apologized to Sarah. This was too late, however, because he had already acted with disrespect and was resistant to receiving any kind of feedback. Once he was coached again on his behavior and advised he would be written up, Steve became angry again and quit on the spot.

Now, let's funnel down into how Steve could have reacted:

1. How could Steve have reacted? Steve was feeling resentful that he didn't get the management position, and it was difficult for him to accept feedback from Sarah who was in the position he felt he should have been given. Steve also felt that given his tenure he was a bit "above" other agent's standards. Tenure alone is never the answer to success, but feeling this way is entirely acceptable for Steve. It's never a managers place to tell someone that their feelings are invalid, but to help them move past them. The issue in this scenario is that reacting on feelings alone is never the way we should handle things in the workplace. Steve could have reacted professionally, no matter how he felt inside.

2. How could Steve have interacted? Steve could have heard Sarah out and if he wasn't ready for a larger discussion or to have a full conversation, he could have told Sarah that. In this instance, Steve could have simply said "I appreciate the feedback, and I need some time to think about this before we have a larger discussion, is that okay?" Sarah manages in such a way that this would have been perfectly acceptable and she would have allowed Steve to clock out for a while as needed.

3. What could Steve have done next? After taking some time to think about the feedback he received, Steve could have come in and had the necessary conversation with Sarah. At that point, Steve would have had a game plan on how to move forward towards success and avoid the negative behavior that he had. Steve could have also worked on strengthening his working relationship with Sarah so that he could feel more comfortable having tough discussions with his manager and could have been coached on combining good performance with long tenure.

Tenure alone is never the answer to success.

Obviously, there are a number of different ways we receive feedback in the workplace, but when you receive tough feedback from a manager the absolute best thing you can do is listen. It can be hard, especially when it's something that you don't want to hear, just like the scenario with Steve, but being able to silence your ego and truly listen for a moment will help immensely with your professional growth. Some of the hardest lessons teach us the best things, and more often than not your manager has your best interest at heart when they have a discussion with you regarding your performance. Not only are you part of their team (and on the same team!) but you are part of the company and vital to larger success.

When you receive tough feedback, remember, the things you feel are not invalid and you are always entitled to feel how you want. It's how you react, interact, and what you do next that counts.

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