How to Receive Constructive (negative) Feedback
This is a story I have head over and over again when I do communication training with people in tech companies.
Your Line Manager sits you own in a one to one appraisal meeting.
They tell you your targets have been achieved and your delivery has been marked as “outstanding”.
“Unfortunately however”, they say, “you have received negative feedback from colleagues saying you are difficult to work with and have been marked down on communication, collaboration skills and team work.”
You feel like a rabbit in the headlights. You start asking: “Who said this? In what context?”.
Your Line Manager says: “I cannot tell you as I was given this information under the agreement of confidentiality”.
Your mind starts to wander, searching in desperation scenarios where you might have done or said the wrong thing, you start doubting everything you ever said or did, wondering if all your life you have been living a lie. You don’t know what you are doing, maybe your colleagues never liked you, and on and on.
You become paranoid about your abilities, doubting even the smallest things and wondering if everything you are doing is wrong.
You try to keep calm and ask your manager for examples, yet they say they don’t have any examples, they were just told you are difficult. That’s all they have.
You keep insisting you need to know who or when, where, what, yet they say they can’t share any more information and 45 minutes have passed, the conversation is going around in circles.
You finally ask them what they suggest you could do to remove this negative mark from your record and improve your skills.
Your Manager comes up with some abstract statements (such as: “be more open to others”, “be more collaborative”, “you’re too prickly, be more approachable”) which make no sense to you and you don’t know what to do next. You feel shocked, upset and lost. You don’t know how to behave from now on at work or at home as you emerge from this dark, cold, unforgiving meeting room.
If you find yourself in this situation, it often feels very unfair.
What can you do in this situation?
You can only improve or take immediate action to improve your collaboration or communication skills if the feedback is constructive.
1. What you CAN do is acknowledge that all of the questions and panic that came to your mind was from the emotional brain (the amygdala), the part of the brain that is desperately trying to keep as safe, as it felt like an attack.
Your brain will create black and white thoughts and blanket statements described above such as: “you start doubting everything you ever said or did, wondering if all your life you have been living a lie. You don’t know what you are doing, maybe your colleagues never liked you, and on and on.”
2. Acknowledge your feelings, ask yourself: “would I chose to feel this way?”, “Do I want to feel this way?”.
If the answer is “no” it means you are being hijacked by your emotional brain (the limbic system).
3. Ask your Line Manager for some clear actions you can take to improve your skills and work towards removing this from your record.
If they are not specific and measurable about what these actions are, you have no clear examples to go by so you can suggest ways forward, it’s nearly impossible to action. It is fair to ask for clear examples.
Tell your Line Manager you would like to agree a clear way forward to improve your skills as you are unsure how XYZ (e.g. : “be more open to others”, “be more collaborative”, “you’re too prickly, be more approachable”) abstract statements they said translate into things you can do in your day to day job.
4. Look into some self-awareness exercises (if you doubt the usefulness of psychometric tests, skip the 3rd suggestion in the linked article). Just because your manager wasn’t able to tell you what happened or give you constructive feedback, it doesn’t mean you are stuck. Self-awareness is one of the biggest tools one can use to calm down your emotional brain and understand why someone might have given you negative feedback.
One last thing I would say you could do is to take it as an interesting observation exercise of how your brain reacts under stress and move on.
Side note: This sort of situation happens when Line Managers are not trained how to deliver constructive feedback and how to help their staff improve and remove the negative mark on their record. A Trained /Experienced Line Manager will collect feedback from colleagues and will have agreed with them that they would have to give the person being appraised examples of the situation and agree with them ways forward. Experienced Line Managers would only pass on negative feedback to staff when they have fully understood where this feedback has come from and what they can do to work with their staff in positive ways to act on the feedback. To understand how the manager should have passed on this feedback, see the article called Worried about Giving Challenging Feedback to Your Reportee?