Ask the grumpies: How to deal with anticipating/receiving difficult feedback

MidA asks:

[D]o you have any favorite past posts on receiving difficult feedback? I think some may be coming my way (though not sure what precisely–I’ll spare the backstory but suffice it to say that this is a surprise) and if I don’t have a gameplan, I’m afraid I may be noticeably holding back tears.

I don’t think we do have any favorite posts on that topic.

What I usually do that works for me (but may not work for you) is to go through every possible scenario including the worst possible ones, and then think about what I’ve learned and how not do do the bad thing again, how to put a plan in place, what larger problems does this highlight, are there structural changes to be made etc.

Usually the feedback isn’t as bad as my worst imaginings. And having a growth mindset helps to think of screw-ups as chances to change/grow/fix stuff.  Sure, maybe I did something stupid, but it was a temporary stupidity that has resulted in a learning experience for me or highlighted something that needs to be changed structurally.

As a warning though, admin often doesn’t like structural changes (even something as simple as getting a coffee maker that doesn’t set the office on fire when someone leaves a burner on) and sometimes will attack rather than explore their feasibility. That’s a sign of bad admin.

Oldmdgirl added this for when you don’t think the feedback you’re getting is actually worthwhile:

[E]ven if the negative feedback is a bunch of baloney, I recommend saying, “Thank you for taking the time to tell me your concerns. Do you have any suggestions on how I might avoid this happening in the future/ things that I can work on so that this doesn’t happen again?” Try to focus on what you can DO differently in the future. Take the focus off of who you are as a person. Depersonalize it. Then you can go stick pins in the voodoo doll you created for that purpose.

What do you do/suggest, grumpy nation?

10 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How to deal with anticipating/receiving difficult feedback”

  1. taylorqlee Says:

    I agree with oldmdgirl. Basically my first question whenever I receive negative feedback is, “What would you suggest I do next time that would be better?” or “What do you imagine the ideal version of this situation would look like?” It helps me figure out how to be better at my job (or at least be perceived better) and it also helps to distinguish when someone is giving me real feedback or venting their frustrations on me.

  2. Jenny F. Scientist, PhD Says:

    Yep. Though it can be pretty challenging to avoid snark when saying “And what would YOU suggest?”. But if I practice it in front of a mirror it helps me avoid making what my spouse calls The Face.

    I also put negative feedback in a mental box for a day or two while my righteous wrath burns out, and then take it back out to see if there’s anything useful in it.

    On a practical note, if you can stick an unobtrusive candy or pastille in your mouth beforehand, having something else to do with your face can help one not cry/ look like crying.

    • xykademiqz Says:

      I also put negative feedback in a mental box for a day or two while my righteous wrath burns out, and then take it back out to see if there’s anything useful in it.

      Ditto here. Especially for bad reviews of grants and occasionally papers; those ruin my mood for several days. I wait until I calm down and then go back and look at them; they are never really as bad as how they seem at that first reading.

      • Ana Says:

        Yes, I do this too—definitely with grants/papers—I need the anger/disappointment to burn out before I can approach it logically. Its a great idea for in person feedback, too, though you still have to go through the actual face-to-face time, you should probably try to forget it (easier said than done!) until you are ready to unpack it and make any changes you need to make.

  3. Ana Says:

    oldmdgirl’s advice is great. depersonalizing it really helps soften the blow to the self-esteem. and coming away from the meeting with concrete things you can do to change (if there is indeed something constructive about the criticism, there should be concrete areas of improvement!) already sets you on the right path.

  4. chacha1 Says:

    All good advice. Most of the time when I’ve received difficult feedback it’s been when I already had one foot out the door and didn’t much care (have worked in a lot of places with bad management). Most recently, I got spanked for going over an office administrator’s head to try to resolve a workflow problem. She said it made her look ineffective. I apologized while thinking “if the shoe fits …”.

    The sad thing in my line of work is that mostly when I’ve gotten management on my case it’s been because I was trying to improve something. Sometimes you just have to remember it’s not your company, and all you can do is your best within the parameters (however poorly designed or implemented) of your job.

    On the few occasions I have actually made a mistake (I don’t say this to brag. It’s easy to do my type of work very competently if you can read and are halfway organized), *if also given a guideline to follow* I have apologized, seized the guideline, and thanked. If not also given a guideline I have requested specific instructions. Oftentimes the person giving the reprimand is not prepared to deliver instructions (management typically doesn’t know how to do the jobs of people it manages). And in those cases I’ve said that I would pursue guidance from co-workers. In the job I am exiting today, there has never, not once, been any follow-up from management to see if I’ve gotten the training I needed.

    So: if it’s criticism of the way you’ve done part of your job, determine if it’s a training issue. If it’s criticism because someone was in a bad mood, blow it off. If it’s actual feedback, meaning “we think you should go this way instead with this,” be grateful they are actually giving you direction, even if you disagree with it (see above re: not your company).

  5. First Gen American Says:

    Interesting….feedback is a constant, expected and constructive thing where I work. It’s not a negative thing and it most certainly is not a big bomb that gets dropped without warning. When it becomes negative is when there is a gross neglect of one’s goals and objectives.

    • First Gen American Says:

      Feedback should be followed by next steps. What’s the action plan to get back on course or exceed expectations. Sometimes feedback isn’t about how to get back on track but to fulfill stretch goals. Top performers are often asked to do extra to make up for someone else’s shortfalls.

      Good luck. Don’t stress, be receptive to it, and make an action plan once the feedback is delivered. If it’s delivered unprofessionally, then start working on your resume and look for greener pastures.

  6. independentclause Says:

    Stay in the moment if at all possible. Concentrate on understanding what the person means and what he/she is actually talking about in concrete specific ways (as per the advice above). Stick to the facts, you can always rebut them later. DO NOT worry about the implications, unfairness, personal feelings at that time. Be stone during the meeting and then make sure you have a getaway plan so you can cry in the bathroom/car/at home/in a bar afterward. Good luck and come back and let us know what helped/how it went.


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