How to React to Negative Feedback at Work

UPDATED: June 15, 2019
PUBLISHED: June 30, 2015

At some point in our careers, we all receive feedback on our performance—some positive and some negative. And while negative feedback doesn’t have the ability to stall our career, an unwillingness to absorb and act on it does.

So if you have recently received less-than-desirable feedback from your boss, co-workers or clients, welcome the news! It may be tough to hear, but it is the very next thing to work on to propel yourself into the next level of success.

Struggling to get to that place of acceptance and abundance? The big question you must answer is whether or not you are willing to learn from the feedback. Decide if you are willing to wholeheartedly learn and grow and address the situation.

If your answer is no, get out now, because it will only get worse as you continue to try to justify, defend, manipulate or simply depend on time to get you through it. Get out, but know this—what we don’t welcome and address head on in our lives will reappear again until we get the lesson intended.

If your answer is yes, here are a few tips to help move you forward:

1. De-personalize the feedback.

Feedback is the main avenue toward growth. Yet when you first hear of a development need, it may come as a surprise. In the beginning, you may be totally unaware that there was a need for improvement at all.

But remember, defense is the first act of war. Commit to responding to the feedback with openness and willingness. Provide a response such as, “I would like to do whatever I can to change that and find a way forward” or “I have noticed that about myself, too. Can you help me with that?” Own your actions and demonstrate that you are ready to resolve it. Once you are at a point of gratitude for the feedback, you are in the growth zone.

2. Stop fighting the facts.

When faced with a setback, we tend to argue with the reality of the situation and begin to create our own story about our circumstances—a story that often features ourselves as the helpless victim with everyone else out to get us. Contrary to what we might believe, arguing with the facts of the situation is a complete waste of time, resources and energy. After all, it is not our reality that causes us stress; it’s the story we make up about our realities that causes us stress. When we are in our story, we read into the situation, assign motive and make assumptions about what’s happened—most of which is likely untrue and not rooted in reality.

Work, instead, to conserve your precious energy, understand the lesson at hand and respond in ways that will help, rather than hurt, your career. Be a lover of reality and take action to quickly improve your performance and rebuild your credibility.

3. Stay in your lane, aka focus on yourself.

In life, there are three lanes of traffic: your lane, others’ lane and reality’s lane. You have successfully gotten out of reality’s lane; now get out of other people’s lanes as well.

Focus on your actions, assumptions, choices, etc. and resist the need to point out how others were involved in the poor outcome. Focusing on others only slows your progress in learning the fullest sense of the lesson at hand. Get the most out of the experience by focusing only on what you can impact.

4. Reframe the situation.

If you generally believe that the universe is benevolent, then everything that happens to you can only be happening for your higher good.

Having once lost the contract of a lifetime, I was devastated. I simply couldn’t understand why it was happening to me—I had done everything right and yet the budget was cut. Within a few months, both my sister and mother got very ill and this would have been the same time I would have been out of the country for three months had the contract gone through. While it was terrible to see them sick, it proved to me that the universe definitely knows what is best.

The same is true when it comes to receiving feedback at work. Ask yourself to identify three positive reasons as to why this setback or “growing pain” might be happening in your life right now. Consider the possibility of a positive end result and get busy working toward it.

5. Drive for results and learning.

When faced with a major setback, many people are tempted to stick with their version of reality, digging in their heels and justifying why they were right and someone else was wrong. If you find yourself in this position, ask yourself, Would I rather be right or happy?

If your choice is that you would rather be right, know that you will be giving up great results and valuable learning for the privilege. When you decide that you are right and someone else is wrong, you immediately become righteous, seeking out only that feedback that continues to prove you are right, thus blocking out a ton of great information that could help.

If your choice is happiness, the great news is that results and learning tend to follow. Take accountability for the situation. By accounting for how you got here, you move from being a victim of circumstance to a professional who can account for the many actions and thoughts that led to the current results. What freedom! You can now take responsibility, learn the lesson, gain clarity on what to do differently and learn how to produce better results in the future.

When you are mining the experience for the greatest lesson, know that you are doing all you can to improve and develop. If you can learn to accept negative feedback as helpful, not hurtful, and adjust your reaction accordingly, you can rest assured that amazing things are in store for your career.

What if you’re the one giving the feedback? Check out 5 strategies to make the criticism constructive.

Cy Wakeman is a national keynote speaker, business consultant, New York Times best-selling author, blogger and trainer who has spent over 20 years cultivating a revolutionary, reality-based approach to leadership. For more on Cy, check out or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.