Handling Feedback

Photo by Sushobhan Badhai / Unsplash

Accepting feedback with grace plays a key role in building long lasting productive relationships. Humans are social creatures and feedback fuels our psyche. We nod when we see our colleagues in the hallway. Sometimes multiple times a day. We wave to our neighbors we rarely know, and we seek recognition from those we look up to.

While positive feedback is invigorating, negative feedback about something we care deeply about can hinder our creativity. Especially when negative feedback carries hints of criticism and personal attacks.

I have been in so many situations where leaders crush inventiveness with their brutally honest facts. These leaders think they are providing feedback, but they end up shaming attempts at innovation. Although inadvertent, their methods focus on individual rather than the product they are supposed to be improving.

A survey by the Center of Talent Innovation found that when undermining management causes burnouts. This leadership style fosters an environment that becomes hostile to failure, and therefore, innovation.

Collaborative creativity thrives in psychologically safe environments. When people believe others will not penalize them or think less of them for mistakes, they are more likely to take chances and think outside of the box. Isn’t that what management asks us all to do?


Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams writes:

Team psychological safety should facilitate learning behavior in work teams because it eases excessive concern about others’ reactions to actions that have the potential for embarrassment or threat, which learning behaviors often have. For example, team members may be unwilling to bring up errors that could help the team make subsequent changes because they are concerned about being seen as incompetent, which allows them to ignore or discount the negative consequences of their silence for team performance. In contrast, if they respect and feel respected by other team members and feel confident that team members will not hold the error against them, the benefits of speaking up are likely to be given more weight.

Negative criticism may be discouraging, whether you're getting it for a creative project or at a performance review. Many of us can recall at least one occasion when we were told that we were not good enough. Brene Brown refers to these moments as creativity scars. Brown learned that  85% people had a school incident in their childhood that was so shaming, it changed their perception about themselves.

It remains an unfortunate fact that creativity, despite its inherent challenges, has to survive in environments designed to crush it. Pianists, singer, actors, or software developers, we all fight against the failure and self-doubt, not only in themselves but also in others. Open any business book and you’ll hear story after story of interpersonal conflicts and team dynamics stifling innovation.


Negative feedback is everyone’s reality. I am staunch believer that mastery requires feedback. Maturity is in understanding that everyone fails. Failure is in remaining knocked down. Getting back into the game, and learning from your mistakes, is the way to fight failure. Even superstars are not immune to failure and criticism.

One way to reduce negative feedback is by selecting the “right people”. This is an unreasonable expectation in professional environments. Or in any environment. I am not suggesting that you should care about everyone’s opinion. However, listening to a limited set of people can lead you in the wrong direction or groupthink. I am a proponent of diversity, and that includes seeking feedback from folks across the spectrum.

Maintaining growth mindset

I have learned that most feedback recipients need to carry a sieve to sift through the message. Surely there will be times when you’ll find nothing worthy to keep. But assuming you are asking the people that truly care about improving your contributions, there will be nuggets of good ideas to help you improve.

When receiving negative (or poorly presented) feedback, you have two options. First is to simply ignore it, which might be great if you are an unconventional genius like Dostoevsky or Lady Gaga. The other option is to validate the feedback and seek things that can polish your work. I deal with the second situation. Most of the time.

The worst you can do in these cases is to focus on the hurtful comments. Instead, listen. Be prepared to accept the feedback. Becoming defensive will hinder your ability to understand diverse viewpoints.

Remain gracious as being thankful can disarm people intending to hurt you. Thank people for their time and effort. Don’t sound flippant or use sarcasm to shield yourself. Use this opportunity to learn. Don’t damage your relationships.

Brown writes “don’t grab hurtful comments and pull them close to you by rereading them and ruminating on them. Don’t play with them by rehearsing your badass comeback. And whatever you do, don’t pull hatefulness close to your heart.”

When I recently faced hurtful feedback, I asked myself why does it sting. I carried elaborate chats with my opponent in my head. At first, I tried very hard to prove them wrong. Then I tried to disqualify their arguments. Then I discredited them. “What do they know?”

They had hurt me with their comments. I allowed myself to wallow. I tried to put my feelings into words. In retrospective, the best thing I did was to avoid belittling myself, which I knew would’ve been a giant waste of time. I realized that the feedback was hard to process because it attacked my vulnerabilities. It had questioned my credibility.

Many of us carry self-doubt deep within ourselves. There’s a strong link that connects our insecurities and the things that are important to us. We are worried that we’re not as competent or informed as we (or others) think we are. We live in a perpetual state of imposter syndrome.

For reassurance, I remembered my past accomplishments. Practiced a bit of self-compassion. I couldn’t let an opinion define who I was. I had to isolate the feedback and the feelings it had brought to surface, and continue with my productive journey onward.

The feedback provider had evoked my insecurities. The negative feelings triggered my defense mechanism setting my brain into flight or fight mode. In defensive mode, I was spending more energy fighting the feedback, berating myself, and feeling inadequate than using the feedback to improve my output. My fears made me think that the person saw my authentic version, the one that’s a total failure.

It took me a couple of days to calm down. It couldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t processed my feelings and analyzed my thoughts. Ultimately, I did succeed in putting aside the negative stuff and focusing on the constructive feedback.

In this situation, I realized that the feedback did make sense, and if roles were switched, I would’ve made the same recommendations. Albeit in a more professional and positive way.

Set clear boundaries

The incident definitely taught me that good feedback can sound outrageous at first (vice versa is also true). I am certainly not going to exclude people with tough feedback nor the ones that don’t know how to provide it. I am now more aware that my insecurities can make me stop listening and hinder my creativity.

In fact, I intend to go a step further and welcome negative feedback. Not because I am a glutton for punishment, but because I know people struggle to provide positive feedback.

When soliciting feedback, consider being specific and request feedback frequently. Doing so will give you inputs in more manageable portions.

The right way to provide feedback is to put the problem in focus and not personalities. I positive feedback session for me is where I don’t come across as lecturer. I try to identify strengths in teams and individuals, and instances where that strength has potential to grow. The requestor and provider have to remain respectful at all times. I know people will not accept my feedback if I shame or blame them.

When providing feedback, I need to choose my words wisely. The recipient is asking for help, not judgement. I can avoid sounding negative by first seeking permission to provide feedback and clearly defining the scope of feedback. By setting boundaries, I hope to ensure not stepping outside the scope of feedback I am being asked to provide. I cannot erode trust in relationships by sounding egoistic, self-righteous, and becoming an impediment to innovation.