5 tips for responding to negative feedback at work

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Ever felt caught off guard when your boss gave you some critical feedback? If you're like a lot of people, negative feedback can be rough to hear, and you might get defensive or upset or shut down. But those reactions, while understandable, won't serve as you nearly as well as responding calmly and professionally – even in the face of the toughest feedback. Here's how to do it:

1. First and foremost, get clear in your head that feedback – especially critical feedback – is something that will help you.

After all, think about what would happen if your employer never gave you feedback: You'd stagnate in your job instead of grow professionally, and you'd be less likely to get better and better at what you do. And without feedback, you could become totally unaware of serious issues that could impact your career progression or reputation and even get you fired in some cases. (That last one especially matters! Even if you ultimately disagree with the feedback, it's crucial to understand your manager's perspective so that you can make better decisions for yourself.)

In fact, the more you can train yourself to actively want feedback – to seek it out and to welcome it when it comes – the better you're likely to do in your career, and the more people will probably like working with you.

2. Don't react right away.

Too often, people's first instinct when hearing critical feedback is to defend themselves – to explain why their manager's assessment is wrong or why there were extenuating circumstances or simply to disagree.

It's certainly possible that your manager is wrong or that special circumstances were in play – but it's not helpful to leap straight there. If you do, you'll make it harder for yourself to truly hear and process the feedback, and you're more likely to come across as defensive rather than open to input. Instead, focus at first on just listening. Then ...

3. Actively show that you're open to the feedback.

Giving critical feedback is hard, and many managers are nervous when they do it. The more you show that you are open to the conversation, the easier it will go for both of you – and the more likely you are to draw out additional useful information.

If you simply absorb the input in silence, your manager might not have any idea what you're thinking or whether you're angry or upset or you disagree. Instead, try saying something like: "I really appreciate you telling me this. I didn't realize this was a problem, and I'm grateful that you raised it."

Note that you're not even agreeing with the feedback here – you're simply demonstrating that you don't have your guard up and that you welcome the conversation. And now you're having a discussion that's more about collaborative problem-solving than one-way criticism.

4. Share relevant information.

At this point, you might realize you have information or perspective that your manager doesn't, and which might impact her assessment if she knew it. It's reasonable to mention, for example, that the reason a report was late was because you were waiting on information from someone who was out sick, or that you didn't put as much energy into project X because the CEO told you to focus exclusively on project Y.

Most managers want to know that kind of thing, and it's fine to say: "You're right that I didn't put a lot of energy into project X. I had thought that project Y was a higher priority and so I was keeping my focus there. Was that the wrong call to make?"

As long as you're actively demonstrating openness to your manager's message, it shouldn't come across as defensive to share information that might change her assessment.

5. Ask for time to process the feedback if you need to.

Sometimes it's tough to absorb critical feedback on the spot or to figure out how you want to respond. If that's the case, it's fine to say something like: "I really appreciate you telling me this. Would it be OK if I took some time to think about this and then circled back to you in a few days with my thoughts?"

Of course, then make sure that you really do circle back. At that point, the onus will be on you to raise the topic again. If you don't, you'll look like you're shirking a tough conversation or not taking it seriously.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

Photo Credit: Getty

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