Growing from negative feedback and managing your inner criticFeatured

Hello, I’m Rachel Reiss, and a Consultant and Employee Engagement leader at IBM. As someone relatively early in my career, I’m excited to have recently discovered Elpha as a place where I can grow and learn from other inspiring women. I remember my first time getting negative feedback. This is the type of feedback you can’t even call “constructive” because it doesn’t construct or build you up. Instead, this is the type of feedback that stings, festers, and haunts you for years to come.It was the end of my first true consulting gig, and I had really lucked out as far as projects go. I had a great team, great clients, and wasn’t doing typical analyst grunt work at all. I must preface this with a bit about my project manager, too. She was in her early 30s and someone who had gotten very far, very fast. I had a great deal of respect for her and aspired to climb the corporate ladder as quickly and unscathed as she had. To a callow new hire like myself, her words were worth their weight in gold.So when right before our final team celebration, my project manager pulled me into an empty conference room for an in-person performance evaluation, I knew I was about to experience one of those make-or-break moments. And it broke me.I am unable to recall what exactly happened in that room, but I remember wishing the Earth would open up beneath my feet and I could disappear. What I do remember is this:She said the client thought I wasn’t listening, because I hadn’t taken all of their input into account when building our final deliverables. This was difficult to do, when I had 10 different clients requesting 10 different things. When I’d ask for advice from my PM, her favorite response was, “you’re smart, figure it out.”She critiqued my habit of asking questions frequently, since good consultants figure things out independently. How was I supposed to navigate difficult client situations for the first time? She said, “You really need to control your anxiety. You may find that consulting isn’t for you.” As if to imply this may be the case.She said she had exchanged observations about my behavior with the partner on our team, so everything she told me was validated by someone else. Did I mess up so badly that my poor performance was an object of discussion?She suggested I should have attended more team dinners to seem less aloof. I thought two dinners per week would be adequate - did I really send a bad message by wanting one evening of alone time? We sat around the same table all day long!I realize that objectively, her feedback could have been a lot worse. I asked for specific examples of my behavior - not to challenge her, but out of genuine curiosity. Sure, I knew I was anxious, but didn’t realize it may have manifested that obviously. Most everything she said was valid, but I was not offered any chance for questions or any course of action. Just a pile of six months worth of thoughts and reflections, dumped on me. I felt helpless and let the weight of it all sink a little deeper, until it became part of who I was. I thanked her and walked out.Since that project, I’ve been promoted, received stellar performance reviews, built a network of trusted mentors, and earned the respect of my peers and superiors. Yet all of that hasn’t done much to reassure me that I’ve truly progressed from that feedback. I can’t fault her for not knowing how I’d internalize her words; it wasn’t totally her problem. But as someone who already has a strong inner critic, her feedback has continued to amplify that inner critic in times of self-doubt. I find it helpful to meditate on the following realizations to manage feelings of inadequacy and incompetence brought about by negative feedback:Consider the source Next time you receive negative feedback, ask yourself: who is it coming from? Is it from a disgruntled manager, who is simply having a bad day? A peer who envies your performance? A leader who has a reputation for being difficult? As much as we try, feedback is never objective. Human emotions and circumstance comes into play if not in only what feedback is delivered, but in how the feedback is delivered. Even more important, you must trust that you won’t have this context in every instance you receive feedback - but there is always context behind it.Obtain feedback from multiple sourcesMy project manager certainly didn’t leave me with the “happy ending” I was hoping to close out my first project with. But on my last day at the office, one of the clients approached me at the coffee machine. With a friendly nudge, she told me how difficult my manager can sometimes be, assured me that my work was appreciated, and my future was bright. Being that she was unaware of the events that transpired a few days before, I knew it wasn’t a pity party. She meant it, and that meant more to me than anything.Control what you canYou can’t control what feedback is given, but you can somewhat control when and how it is delivered. Any time I’m working with a new team, I make sure to proactively solicit feedback at regular cadences. I also define expectations up front to create mutual understanding around how we (my teammates and I) operate. This way, I’m not shocked if I get feedback that I ‘missed the mark’.Be AuthenticWe’re told to bring our whole selves to work every day, but also feel compelled to suppress that whole self when it runs contrary to the image of who we want to portray. During my first project, I was going through a tumultuous time on the personal front. I was changing my changing medication for anxiety, weathering a rough patch in my long distance relationship, and was shaken up by job insecurity with new hire layoffs at my firm. This baggage followed me to work, inevitably bleeding into my performance and exacerbating my anxiety. But I suffered in silence. Nowadays, I consider how informing my manager that I was experiencing “personal difficulties” may have changed things. As any good leader should, perhaps she would have offered me the support to positively shape my performance, or delivered feedback differently.While in the moment, I let the feedback break me down, in the long haul, I’ve realized it’s built me up. My sense of self-worth now feels (mostly) within my locus of control, and more importantly, I make sure when I deliver feedback, I do so in a way to build others up, as well.None of us are immune to negative feedback and many of us have a strong inner critic! I’d invite you to share in the comments below how you’ve managed to make negative feedback hurt a little less, and maintain a sense of self-worth and confidence.
Thank you for sharing this and the points that you’ve made. Although it’s hard, I try to separate myself from my work so that when someone gives me negative feedback, I don’t take it personally.
I think this is a common struggle among a lot of young women; our identity is so deeply rooted in our work that we lose sight of the fact that we're valuable in so many other ways.
Thank you for sharing, @rachelreiss! I'm a firm believer in "be the person you needed when you were younger." The younger me could have really used this article when navigating a similar situation. I had a manager who stated feedback in a way that cut straight to the core. Unfortunately, his words rang more true in my mind than the contrary opinions of those who's opinions actually mattered. For almost a year, I feel like it followed me even as I was building my reputation as a strong performer. Yet every time I took one step forward, I felt like there was a reminder of his feedback. Luckily, his opinion isn't the loudest voice in my head anymore, hopefully your old manager's voice has quieted too!
I haven't mastered the art of silencing my inner critic (and don't think I ever will), but I've definitely been able to dial down her voice in times of self-doubt. Part of it just comes with time, hindsight, and having the opportunity to work with people who help put the insignificance of earlier opinions into perspective. If anything, I can appreciate that manager for showing me who not to be - and now hope I can pay it forward as a positive leader/coach for newer hires. Grateful to have you as a colleague + a friend!
Thank you sharing your brilliant insights @rachelreissNext month, I am dedicating my free coaching show to talk about different ways to tackle your "inner critic", I'm really looking forward to my guests sharing their actionable tips on this topic. If you'd like to be a guest on the show next month, please DM me.To your success!
AMAZING reminders for receiving feedback! I agree you have to consider the source. I like to think about if it's from a person I admire with traits I want to emulate. I also heard this daunting experiment you can do if you really want to have a sit down session to increase self awareness. Choosing the 5 closest people in your life, those you love and truly love you and inviting them to sit down and give you their insights on what your strengths and weaknesses are. I've personally never done that before but it did give me a lot to think about. When getting feedback, having that strong foundation of self awareness is so key. Thanks for sharing!
I very much agree. Self-awareness is what keeps us humble; it's so easy to jump and get defensive when "darts" are being thrown at you. Our goal as the recipients is to discern when those darts do and do not hit the target.
Thanks for sharing this. This is really helpful. I have struggled with the idea of giving and receiving negative feedback. and I think as women it is harder to do both, as we are socialised to be "nice" and "play along" all the time.
There definitely is a double standard. I've found there's a way to be appropriately assertive. I try to consider myself a purveyor of constructive feedback rather than negative feedback; just by using that word, it's helped me make the mental shift.
Hmm, that's interesting, Will try that next time. Thank you! :) ☺️
Thanks for sharing, and I think there are two really important points you make about the source of the critique and the timeliness. All too often, we get feedback (helpful or not) when it is too late to course correct, or we get it from people who either don't have the perspective or ability to help us grow. I requested a 360 review at my last company, where we had a small ecosystem of people who either managed me or who I managed provide anonymous written feedback. Despite anonymity, it was very easy to tell who had said what, and although I was mostly not surprised by the assessment of my skills and perception of my personality, I will say that I was thrown by a superior who I disliked saying that I intimidated him. I don't think it is the job of a junior employee (especially a woman) to make a manager feel superior, but I will also acknowledge that I was less than helpful to this particular manager, perhaps unfairly. Once I got that peek at his humanity, I was able to slightly adjust my attitude and make the relationship a bit smoother. On the positive side, I don't think I mind being an intimidating woman, as long as I am also a good team player :-)
I respect that so much! A shortcoming of many companies is that they don't offer opportunities for 360 degree feedback. I think a structure or mechanism needs to be put in place for people, especially more junior women, to feel comfortable partaking.
Negative feedback can be crippling, especially if there is a meanness to it. In my 25+ year career, I have had two instances where I was blindsided, and even knowing the source/cause of the negative feedback, it was difficult to overcome the impact to my self confidence.For that reason, I try to be the manager and mentor I wished I had and follow a core set of guidelines such as: respect, collegiality, and collaboration. I also recommend finding someone in your life, outside of work who can be a mentor to you. It helps to be able to talk through issues with someone who is not involved and can provide a different perspective. I have a couple of people who reach out to me to discuss situations they are dealing with at work, so find someone who can do that for you and try to be that mentor for a couple of people as well.
you sound amazing to work with @Kanika <3
This ties back to @annmarienunziata's point earlier; "be the person you needed when you were younger". It is now my mission (and brings me joy) to be that coach/mentor to others. I admire you for following that philosophy, as well!I agree about the value of finding a mentor outside of work. Sometimes we need an outside-in perspective to remind us that the world is larger than our company, and our identity is larger than our job (or someone's perception of our job performance).
Great insights from @rachelreiss and the elphas that responded. Dissolving the inner critic for most people takes years. This is the journey of self-love. Ultimately the most important relationship you have is with yourself, whether people think your work is 'bad' or 'good' is secondary to your perceptions. You have to KNOW that you have value then you will gravitate towards people and situations that reflect that back to you. It sounds like you've done a great job co-creating and having that feeling of being successful reflected back to you; so the first horrible situation was in fact a tremendous 'gift'. It gave you the contrast necessary to understand what you didn't want so you could get focused on what you did want. 'Good job' -- but you already knew that ;)
Thank you, Jocelyn! You are so right - and I have had many 'gifts' since that initial experience that, while unpleasant in the moment, helped me reflect upon what I really ought to prioritize in my work, my relationships, and my life!
I needed to read this post. Thank you. I pushed back at a meeting last week and the new CEO (2 months in the company), for some odd reason, felt some kind of way about it (even though pushing back and explaining the idea behind a decision you made as the manager is encouraged in the company) and threatened to fire me. When I asked the HR manager what I did wrong, my performance was brought up. Even though the new CEO had never called a formal performance review meeting with me, he still had enough power to recommend I leave the company. I handed in my letter without a fight but I won't lie, my confidence took a major hit. I've been trying to recover since it happened and it hasn't been easy. Even though the conversation with our HR manager was not an official feedback session, I walked away from it feeling bruised and punished for trying to explain a decision I made. Sigh. Nigerian culture + corporate work = hell.
I am SO sincerely sorry that happened to you, and I sure hope that the CEO did not threaten you publicly in front of anyone else. Leaders set the culture, and if that's representative of the cultural shift that's about to occur, you may be moving onto greener pastures.As someone who is still working on getting comfortable pushing back myself, I can only imagine how hesitant you must be to speak up to that extent in the future. Goes to show that even at the CEO level, some individuals aren't aware of the impact their actions have on others. Ultimately this says more about her than it does about you - I hope you move forward to a place that welcomes and elevates your ideas.