We’ve all faced it. The dreaded negative feedback. Whether personally or professionally, it can hit us hard. Someone reminds us we’re not perfect! And it doesn’t feel good. Feelings of hurt, doubt, anger, rejection might emerge ─ or perhaps something better!

Defining Moments with Negative Feedback / or The Positive of Negative Feedback

It was my freshman year of college. I was young and optimistic ─ and confident, if not at least hopeful, that I was a talented, smart guy who would do well in school and go on to achieve remarkable things. I was sure a successful future awaited me.

But then, it happened. It was just a 2-page paper. Nothing too complicated or elaborate. Nothing I hadn’t done before.  I was sure I could impress this professor and showcase my skills and knowledge. Well, I didn’t just fail ─ the professor actually THREW the paper at me and, with a look of complete disdain and disgust, told me that it wasn’t even worth his time to grade it!

I was shocked, stunned, devastated, embarrassed, crushed, confused, rattled, humiliated, and disappointed in myself ─ after all, I didn’t think it was THAT bad! Or, worse, what if it really was THAT bad?

It was another unexpected crossroad in life. It was one of those times where we decide what to do when disapproval throws us off course and jars our ego with the dreaded “negative feedback.” Sometimes the lessons we learn in life are painful. I used to hear the term “growth through stress.” That’s not a pleasant thing at all.

So what can we do with negative feedback? Rather than crushing us, how can we turn it into something positive, meaningful, and productive for our growth?

It becomes a choice ─ not the final word.

Here are some of the lessons I started to learn those many years ago and my thoughts going forward, just in case you, too, encounter “negative feedback.”

  1. I had to accept that this feedback was somehow good for me. Yes, it definitely should have been delivered in a better way, but that’s his issue, not mine. I accepted this as his truth ─ and truth is good and an opportunity, right? Embrace the opportunity!
  2. It was important to clarify expectations for improvement and what I really needed to change or learn. I wanted my efforts and actions to result in the positive changes that would make a difference. Don’t assume everything you’re doing is wrong and beat yourself up.
  3. I also had to assume that somehow the professor had good intentions ─ I had to try not to take it personally ─ despite his dramatic delivery of the message. I had to believe it was about the work and not me as a person. I needed to focus on the task/skill/whatever that I needed to improve.
  4. It shocked me to take action. I got a tutor! Finding a mentor, co-worker, or friend for support and solutions for making changes helps build relationships for the journey ahead. I worked to get better. I definitely never wanted a paper thrown at me again!
  5. This was also an opportunity for self-reflection on what else to improve or learn, since apparently I wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought. J Remember to separate yourself from the criticism ─ it’s about your work, not you. Try not to take it personally.
  6. There can also be something very gratifying about the relationship that follows after addressing negative feedback. When you show an openness to change, and that growth is important to you, it can enhance your personal and professional relationships. That professor was happily shocked when he saw I actually embraced his critique and improved!

And in the end, maybe we want negative feedback! Maybe it’s good for us. Consider the words of Elon Musk – billionaire entrepreneur and founder and CEO of SpaceX and CEO and product architect of Tesla: “I think you should always be seeking negative feedback. It’s an important thing to do, to really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it. It’s incredibly helpful. It’s very important to have a feedback loop where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”

It’s all good. Just don’t throw any more papers at me!