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Help! I'm Stuck on Negative Feedback!

Most of the feedback we give and receive is not the negative kind. Yet, that tends to be where our minds go. If you’re like me, that’s the kind of feedback that feels the freshest, like it just happened. But why does this happen to some of us? Why do our brains get stuck on the negative?

This is known as negativity bias. It means that our emotional response to a negative event, like negative feedback, feels amplified compared to a similar positive situation, like positive feedback. It’s not just you – our brains are wired this way. And it’s significant because, according to The Decision Lab, it impacts “how we make decisions, motivate ourselves, and interact with one another.”

Early in my career, I sat in a conference room after having my mid-year review. Almost every piece of feedback I received from my leader was positive. Almost. The feedback was not harsh or even negative; it was constructive. My boss said:

“A lot is changing in our work. Pay attention to when and how that is challenging for you.”

I was in a new role and my team was experiencing significant changes as we shifted what some of our work looked like and where our team belonged.

I’ll be honest – change agility is not my strength. I’m not excited in the face of change. And in this specific situation, my lack of agility amid change was impacting my usual positivity and making me easily overwhelmed. I can say that, while this is still true for me, it’s less so because my leader was kind enough and direct enough to bring it to my attention. Yet, at that moment, I focused on her constructive feedback, and it was hard to shake.

Have you had this experience? Does negative feedback distract you?

Or maybe you’ve had another kind of experience with negative feedback. You know the situation – leaders who are not good managers or lack emotional intelligence.

I talked with a colleague about getting “stuck” on negative feedback. She shared some of her experiences with feedback from poor managers. One time, she was asked to design a company annual report with limited direction from her boss. She spent a significant amount of time researching the data to include, incorporating pictures, infographics, and other design elements to make it more interesting to read. When it was complete, she was really pleased with the execution and the finished product. After presenting the completed report to her boss, all she said was,

"I see you went with green."

No comments good or bad about the actual design, impact, messaging. What did it do to her performance? What does getting this type of feedback do to us? She called it a “buzz kill” to her productivity. She said,

“especially when the feedback wasn’t useful or constructive in any way, it would just take the wind out of my sails, and it was difficult to stay or get back on track.”

Can you relate?

Whether it’s constructive feedback from a leader you respect or negative feedback from a bad boss or one who just doesn’t know how to share feedback effectively, what do you do when you’re stuck on it?

A recent Fast Company article identifies some of the reasons our brains can get stuck on negative feedback and simple ways to get unstuck from this negative bias.

Here are three things I do:

  • Complete a task you've been putting off. There’s something about a sense of accomplishment, crossing something off my “to-do” list that helps me re-focus. It replaces what feels negative with a sense of accomplishment.

  • Get someone else’s perspective. Talk to someone who can remind you of your strengths! We all need to feel like we’ve got people in our corner, and sometimes we need to vent.

  • Keep asking for feedback. It may sound counterintuitive, but one way to get unstuck is to keep asking for feedback! This is a practice we build in our work. Like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger and more comfortable we get using it.

What about you? What do you do to get unstuck after you receive negative feedback?

Also, here are two excellent books we’d recommend on this topic:

  • Radical Candor: Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott

  • The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager, Faster by Tania Luna and LeAnn Renninger

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