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.