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Bouncing Back From Bad Feedback

By Julie Cohen

Feedback has an effect on you whether you're receiving it from an annual performance review, a 360 feedback assessment, or a seemingly well-intentioned comment from a supervisor or colleague. Your interpretation of the feedback depends on a multitude of factors including the source, the content, the intention, your ability to change in relation to the feedback, and how you're feeling when you receive it.

In some instances, the new information rolls off your back with all of the other data you process each day; other times you can use it to change behaviors, improve performance or enhance business results. A challenge can arise when the feedback seems ill-intentioned, doesn't come with support or direction, completely surprises you, addresses a very sensitive issue, or seems just plain wrong. The resulting impact can include diminished motivation, disillusionment with work and career, anger, increased insecurities or feelings of professional futility.

Some examples of feedback woes I have encountered with clients include the following:

  • An IT professional was told by his manager that he needs to be more aggressive and tougher in order to get greater results from work partners. This comment went against the professional's values and his pride of being a team player and consensus builder among colleagues. It left him questioning if he wanted to stay in this line of business or even at the company.
  • A management consultant received an extremely positive performance review. The only area of improvement addressed a specific incident related to an unplanned team meeting. She was left doubting her abilities as a manager. Some of her staff has noticed that she does not seem as energized or engaged at work.
  • An artist received feedback from a professor years ago questioning his creativity and artistic talents. Even after years of objective successes, he wonders if he can or should continue pursuing his art and passions. He continues to hear that professor's voice.

These examples illustrate that regardless of the intention in providing feedback, the consequence of the message may be negative and far-reaching. What's most important is for the individuals on the receiving end of these comments to learn that they have a role in determining how to interpret and even benefit from bad feedback.

The eye-opening perspective that turned the uncomfortable and unwanted feedback process around was this: Feedback is a gift. Imagine it's your birthday and you've just received a beautifully wrapped present from a friend. You open it and it's a sweater. The first thing that you do is pick it up and look at it. Examine the size, color, style. You now have numerous options:

  1. You know you love it. You put it on, it fits perfectly and it will be a staple in your wardrobe.
  2. You're uncertain about it. You'll try it on later, determine how it looks on, how it makes you feel and if it goes with the rest of your wardrobe; or,
  3. It doesn't fit or you just don't like it. You can return it or put it at the back of your closet and forget about it.
Now imagine receiving planned or unplanned feedback from the perspective of "this is a gift." You are now empowered to decide what to do with the information. If the feedback fits, you can make a change that supports your professional development. If you're not sure if the feedback is accurate, you can try it on. Observe your behavior and ask for feedback from other sources and then decide if this is an area that warrants change. Lastly, if the feedback does not truly reflect who you are and what you do, put it in a place where it won't get in your way.

When coaching clients, learn to apply the "Feedback is a Gift" framework to their situation, professional (and personal) satisfaction is greatly enhanced. In the examples mentioned earlier, the IT Professional decided to switch to another department where his strengths are fully utilized and his manager values his interpersonal style. He now enjoys going to work, interacting with his colleagues and he is an asset to his organization. The management consultant celebrated her very positive review and acknowledged that the unplanned meeting cited by her supervisor was both a challenge for her and also a rare occurrence. She sought advice from a more senior colleague and developed a plan in case the situation arose again. And, the artist worked very hard to put his former professor's comments in the back of the closet. He realized that his own vision of creativity was unique, exciting, meaningful and very different from his professor's. As the "voice" quieted, his productivity and enjoyment of his art increased.

When you next receive feedback or constructive criticism, here are a few things to keep in mind as you evaluate the gift...

  • Feedback is someone's perception of you, it is not you. You get to evaluate its accuracy and meaningfulness.
  • What you do with the feedback is up to you. You can evaluate it, act on it or ignore it. If it comes from a supervisor or employer, you may be required to make changes, but you can choose how to approach it.
  • Feedback is contextual and temporal. It is related to a specific situation and time.
  • Feedback is always valuable. It can reaffirm what you already know, ignite powerful change or make you aware of skewed perceptions. Use it in a way that benefits you.

Enjoy your gift!

Julie Cohen, PCC, is a Career Coach. She helps her clients clarify and achieve their professional and personal goals including greater career satisfaction, life balance, leadership development and personal growth. For questions, comments or to discuss this article, Julie can be reached by visiting Julie Cohen Coaching.
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