How to get better critical feedback (and not be offended by it)

There are few things I like less than receiving negative feedback. Whether it’s a user complaining about a product, or a client telling me the article I submitted needs some work, I feel defensive as soon as I realize someone isn’t 100% happy with my efforts.

According to Robert Sutton, organizational psychologist at Stanford University, I’m not alone in struggling with critical feedback:

In our society, we’re not trained in either giving or getting criticism and we’re remarkably incompetent at understanding how we affect other people. Consequently, negative feedback is very, very difficult to do well.

And it’s this struggle that leaves us not wanting to get feedback in the first place. As Jason Freedman, co-founder of 42Floors says, we end up asking for “feedback” when we’re really just looking for a pat on the back:

Often times, when I seek feedback on a project, it’s not actually constructive feedback that I want; it’s simply approval.

Of course, that doesn’t push me to work harder. It doesn’t provide me new perspective. And it certainly doesn’t yield the best product.

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It’s not just a lack of experience and skill that makes us avoid constructive feedback. We’re naturally prone to avoiding negative feedback because it hurts us more than positive experiences do:

There’s evidence that separate circuits exist to handle negative information and events and they’re more sensitive than the circuits that handle positive phenomena.

Scientists have even shown that electrical activity in the brain tends to spike more strongly when we’re faced with negative stimuli compared to “equally potent positive ones.”

John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has shown that electrical activity in the brain spikes more strongly in response to negative stimuli than to equally potent positive ones.

Though some of us take negative feedback more harshly than others. Duke psychologist Patricia Linville coined the term self-complexity to explain the difference between how complicated people’s ideas of themselves are. Research shows the more complex your understanding of yourself, the less hurt you’ll be by negative feedback.

Here’s how health reporter Olga Khazan explains how self-complexity affects the way we receive feedback:

People who are lower in self-complexity have have [sic] fewer self-perceived roles, and their defining qualities in those roles are pretty similar—they might be a serious wife, for example, and a serious boss. These individuals tend to take criticism more to heart. They see negative feedback in any one sphere as a reflection on their whole self, as opposed to a [sic] just a small part of themselves.

But whether you think of yourself in a complex way or not, most of us feel defensive to some degree when faced with criticism. And yet, as Jason Freedman mentioned, not taking on critical feedback leaves us stagnating. So how can we improve the way we approach and make use of feedback on our work?

Separate your self-worth from your work (if you can)

One of the biggest problems with receiving feedback is that many of us equate our self-worth with our work. By tangling the two up together like this, we put ourselves in an awkward position. We can’t do our best work if we can’t be open to criticism and feedback, but anything less than high praise for our work leads to defensiveness as we feel we’re being personally attacked.

Jonas Downey from Basecamp recognizes this common problem and points out that since most people won’t be honest enough to tell you the truth about your work, you should think of any critical feedback as a win:

… the only way to make something great is to recognize that it might not be great yet. Your goal is to find the best solution, not to measure your personal self-worth by it.

According to Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, our struggle with criticism comes from a fear of exclusion or loss of connection. As our modern world has evolved rapidly, our brains have been slow to catch up. We still feel the life-or-death threat that our ancestors once felt when it came to being socially excluded. When social groups were a means of survival, being left out was an extreme blow, and anything suggesting we weren’t safely included would set off alarm bells.

Neal Ashkanacy, professor of management at the University of QLD in Australia, puts it this way:

Identity is very closely tied up to the groups we belong to. Strong criticism threatens your membership in that group, and that’s a powerful force.

While we’re built to naturally feel criticism strongly, finding a way to separate your identity from your work can make criticism easier to take, and more useful.

Ask explicitly

As collaborative tools become more common and make it easier to work in the open, you might open yourself up to feedback opportunities on an ongoing basis. But as Jonas Downey found at Basecamp, this doesn’t always elicit the response you might expect.

Downey found that open projects among the Basecamp team tended to not elicit the feedback he’d expected, as other team members saw open projects as something like a messy workroom. Not wanting to offer feedback while others were in the middle of a project and not necessarily open to it, open projects tended not to improve the flow of feedback more than closed projects ever had.

Instead, Downey suggests making an explicit ask for feedback when you’re ready for it, and offering an update with full context on the project and your progress. This keeps everyone on the same page and makes other team members aware that you’re willing to stop working and take on feedback. The explicit ask can be particularly beneficial for new employees or members of other teams besides yours, who might not feel comfortable jumping in with uninvited feedback.

Those team members might not be wrong in holding off with unsolicited criticism, either.

As Peter Gray says, unsolicited advice is rarely taken well:

It’s important to recognize that it’s human nature not to want unsolicited negative advice. We don’t want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it and are ready to hear it.

Part of the problem with unsolicited feedback is that it often comes from someone we see as being ineligible to offer it. Stepparents, for instance, often have trouble with providing advice or feedback to children who don’t imbue them with the authority to dole it out. And a colleague at the same level of seniority can come across as rude and aggravating if they jump in with uninvited feedback on your work.

But making an explicit ask for feedback gives that person permission to offer criticism. By asking directly, we put them in a position of authority and make ourselves open to their advice.

We also do this implicitly through hierarchical relationships. For instance, if our boss offers unsolicited feedback, we’re unlikely to feel they’re not eligible to do so, since they implicitly hold a rank above us that gives them that authority.

So when you’re ready for feedback, ask for it explicitly from those you trust. And if someone’s offered uninvited criticism, remember it’s natural to be defensive in that situation, but that the same advice might be welcomed if you’d asked for it first.

Ask for exactly what you want

As well as asking explicitly for general feedback, it can be helpful to be explicit about the type of feedback you want.

Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company suggests a method she calls “time boxing.” Rather than asking for general feedback, such as “How am I doing?” or “Is there anything I can do better?” Lew suggests asking for feedback that covers a specific time frame. For instance, “What’s something I could have done better in the past two weeks?” or “What can I improve on from last quarter?”

There are other ways to make your feedback request more specific. You could focus on a particular aspect of your work (e.g. “How can I improve the way I communicate with other team members?”) or on a specific project (“Is there anything I could have done better on Project XYZ?”).

Lew also suggests asking for just one example, rather than an open-ended request for feedback. Asking someone “What can I do better?” can be overwhelming, but if you ask for just one example of something you could do better, you reduce the pressure. And less pressure means you’re more likely to get useful feedback.

Jason Freedman uses a very particular approach at 42Floors to make his feedback requests specific. He calls this approach, which he learned from his investor Seth Lieberman, 30% feedback:

… I once asked Seth for feedback on a product mockup, and he asked if I felt like I was ninety percent done or thirty percent done. If I was ninety percent done, he would try to correct me on every little detail possible because otherwise a typo might make it into production. But if I had told him I was only thirty percent done, he would gloss over the tiny mistakes, knowing that I would correct them later. He would engage in broader conversations about what the product should be.

Freedman tries to use this approach with the rest of his team at 42Floors to encourage both the person offering feedback and the person receiving it to be on the same page before getting started.

Most people I find still want to wait until they’re ninety percent done. But that’s rarely optimal and usually involves painful rewrites.

Whether you need to explain what stage your project is at, or you need to home in on a particular project or time period, being specific when asking for feedback can help those offering it to provide more useful advice. After all, there’s nothing better than feedback that’s actually useful.

Conclusion

To do our best work, we need to get feedback. Without it, we’re missing alternative perspectives and ideas.

But it’s difficult to accept constructive feedback. Our natural tendencies make us see criticism as a threat of social exclusion—and, by extension, our survival.

To overcome our natural defensive approach, we can be more deliberate about asking for feedback. Reaching out explicitly to those we respect, asking for feedback on specific elements of our work, and separating our identities from our work can help us get the feedback we need and receive it well.

Feedback exposes you to yourself, which is why it is both tremendously unsettling and exceptionally valuable. — Peter Bregman, management consultant

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.