Why you can’t handle negative feedback

Am I about to get fired? You try and push the thought to the back of your mind as you walk into your bosses office, close the door and sit down.

She is smiling but you can tell something is slightly off.

As the two of you make small talk, the anticipation of what she’s about to say causes you to squirm uncomfortably in your chair.

An awkward silence slices through the room as talk about the weather fizzles out and the two of you are left facing the real reason she called this little powwow.

Your boss begins by giving you a handful of compliments. While her tone sounds genuine, you aren’t actually listening to any of the words she’s saying — you’re too focused on what’s coming next.

“Sam, I’ve been so impressed with blah, blah, blah and how you’ve done an amazing job of streamlining blah and blah. I couldn’t ask for another blah… but…”

There it is — as soon as she says the word “but” you feel your mind and body brace for impact.

“… but… I have noticed a few areas where I think you could improve…”

As your boss begins offering some negative feedback, you feel a cascade of emotions well up inside of you.

Part of you is feeling angry and defensive, fighting back the urge to lash out and tell her she’s dead wrong… while another part of you is feeling hurt and inadequate, searching for something anything you can say to help reinstill her faith in you.

Once the meeting comes to a close you walk out holding back tears, trudge into your office, close the door and lick your wounds. For the rest of the day you’re feeling hurt, frustrated, anxious and vulnerable.

The beast that is negative feedback.

The short story you just read is something most of us have experienced at some point or another — the awful emotions and anxiety that come along with being told we aren’t the greatest thing since sliced bread.

The anxiety-inducing ego-shattering beast that is negative feedback is one that very few of us have figured out how to tame — it’s one that we avoid at all costs.

In fact, we despise it so much that according to research done by Harvard and the University of North Carolina we will go so far as to reshape our social circles within our workplaces to avoid colleagues who are more apt to give us constructive criticism.

So, we are stuck between a rock and hard place — do we submit our feelings to brutal lashings at the hand of negative feedback or do we ignore it entirely and risk never reaching our full potential?

Neither you nor I are rocket scientists — but we both know the answer to this question — take the negative feedback head on and grow because of it.

However, skillfully handling constructive criticism is easier said than done. In fact, at times it feels impossible. Let’s take a moment and discuss why that is…

Your brain on negative feedback.

We are scared of negative feedback for the same reason we’re scared of the dark — we’ve been hardwired to be scared.

Our ancestors were more likely to be eaten by lions or attacked by enemies at night and because of this they developed an innate fear — it was this fear that allowed them to take the appropriate precautions to keep themselves and their families safe.

Over time, a fear of darkness has become deeply ingrained in our DNA because for most of human history it meant danger. While today we are the top predators in the world, for most of human history we weren’t — experts hypothesize this is where our innate fear stems from.

Today, we don’t have to worry about being eaten by a tiger when the lights go off but we still hang onto this fear. In fact, 64% of British adults are still scared of the dark and nearly 20% of them still check for “monsters” under their beds.

And our brains view negative feedback in a very similar defensive way that they do darkness and monsters under the bed — they feel threatened.

So, when our boss smiles and says we need to work on [fill in the blank], while he isn’t going to reach across the table and eat us whole… it feels something like that to our brains.

Just ask Dr. Martin Paulus, an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. He claims the reasons we respond so poorly to negative feedback is because of the portion of our brain called the amygdala.

It turns out that the amygdala plays a big role in our fight or flight response. So, when you feel like punching someone in the face or running out of the office when they give you negative feedback… it’s because you’re hardwired to feel that way.

Your boss giving you constructive criticism isn’t going to kill you, but it does in some weird way make you feel like you’re in danger.

So, while feeling threatened, hurt, angry or vulnerable about constructive feedback is 100% natural — it’s not acceptable to react to it poorly — by lashing out or shutting down.

But, enough with the science, let’s discuss how you can better handle and respond to negative feedback.

Taming the beast.

People react differently to negative feedback.

Some folks internalize it causing unnecessary anxiety that could impact their performance, while other people play the blame game and ignore the feedback entirely.

Learning to handle negative feedback properly has helped me to build a culture that fosters constructive relationships among our 108 people team.

I want to share how we handle negative feedback from our 3.5 million users here at JotForm and explain some ways you can apply these tactics to your own career and life.

1. You should always ask for feedback when a colleague or client shows displeasure | At JotForm, we always ask for feedback when users cancel

Bill Gates is famous for saying,

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” 

Yes, we’ve been hardwired to be scared and defensive against negative feedback. But what if we actively tried to understand why those unhappy people gave us that criticism in the first place?

We’ve tried to adopt this philosophy at JotForm.

While it’s a nice massage to our egos when folks tell us how great we are… we learn the most when users are unhappy.

And, when are users unhappiest? When they cancel. So, upon cancellation of a subscription, we always ask what we could have done better in a simple form to the user.

In many cases, they are leaving due to an issue we can easily resolve. In these circumstances, we contact the user directly via email and are able to get them back.

You can apply this to your own life by taking the initiative to ask for feedback when a client or colleague is unhappy versus waiting for it or never hearing it.

While it requires leaving your ego at the door, you will boost your personal and professional growth by having the humility to ask where you messed up.

A template to collect feedback on JotForm

This approach does wonders for removing the fight or flight response that comes along when we are taken by surprise with negative feedback.

When you are starting the conversation, your mind is telling your body that you are in control.

2. Asking for negative feedback can build stronger relationships with the people around you | At JotForm, if we notice there is an easy solution, we reach out to the customer personally

The interesting truth is, many of those who criticise us in the first place can turn out to be our life-long advocates if we decide to face our fears.

For instance, after collecting feedback from our customers, we determine whether or not it is an easy fix or something we need to pass off to our development team.

Most of the time, it’s an easy fix, so we will directly contact our customers and in many cases successfully get them to resubscribe to JotForm.

This has been amazingly beneficial in building better, stronger relationships with our customers.

We’ve actually found that some of the customers who cancel end up being our biggest brand advocates down the road.

You can apply this to your own life by viewing negative feedback as an opportunity to build a stronger bond with your colleagues or customers.

Many times, we as people just want to be heard. We just want to be listened too.

When you show your boss, colleagues, and customers that you want to improve and make their lives easier, their frustration might shift to admiration.

That’s how you tame the beast — now take the reigns.

Ultimately, feeling hurt, frustrated and scared when it comes to negative feedback is natural. It’s human.

But, as humans, we have the power to control how we respond to these feelings and emotions.

How would your personal and professional life change if you became more proactive about starting those tough conversations? And, adopting mindset where it’s not just about solving the problem… but building a relationship that is stronger?

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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