Turning negative feedback into an opportunity

January 23, 2014: 9:00 AM ET

Instead of viewing criticism at work as an excuse to binge eat or resort to retail therapy, see it as an opening to change.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

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FORTUNE -- Nobody likes negative feedback. No matter how much you claim to want an honest critique, it stings.

But this time of year -- when we're resolving to improve ourselves and perhaps undergoing performance reviews -- we're more likely than ever to encounter negative feedback. Instead of viewing it as an excuse to binge eat or resort to retail therapy, see it as an opportunity to change.

"No one likes negative feedback. It makes them think less of the person giving the feedback and leads to them rejecting the person and the feedback," says George Bradt, an executive coach and author of First-Time Leader, noting that feedback is critical to any improvement.

The context in which you receive negative feedback shapes your response. You'll act differently during a one-on-one performance evaluation from your boss as opposed to hearing the results of a 360-degree review from a consultant.

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The first step in turning negative feedback into a positive step is to listen carefully and understand what's being said. Look for the truth in the criticism. Ask follow-up questions and dive into specific examples to make sure you have a firm handle on the scenarios in which there's been a problem. Then, consider whether one of these paths is the right one for you.

Up your game

Sometimes you hear negative feedback and -- after some soul searching -- you realize that, in fact, you've been working inefficiently or haven't been at the top of your game. The solution to that problem is to resolve to improve your performance, make some changes, and follow up with the critic once you've turned the issue around.

"We get negative feedback sometimes from clients or staff. My way of handling that is to hit it head on. You take your licking and don't try to argue with people," says Gay Gaddis, chief executive and founder of T3, an Austin, Texas-based digital agency. "Actions are a lot more convincing than words."

After criticism, Gaddis will "double down" and seek to do the best job possible on the next project. You've got to convince the faultfinder that you've changed or that they were mistaken in the first place.

Deepen the relationship

Negative feedback may be an opportunity to improve and deepen your work relationship with the critic. Our natural impulse may be to withdraw from someone who is critical, but you might consider it a fresh start and build a stronger connection.

One client of Michelle Friedman, a New York-based executive coach, was shocked by the negative responses to her 360-degree review, which faulted her for being demanding and pressuring colleagues around deadlines. The client had never thought seriously about her strengths and weaknesses, so she was unprepared for the blowback. Friedman advised her to be gracious; after all, she herself had nominated the individuals who devoted time, energy, and thought to the review process.

"She used it as an opportunity to go back to them and say, 'Thank you for investing the time, for filling out the survey, and writing comments. I've thought about what you said and I'd love to talk about ways we can work together better,'" Friedman recalls.

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The executive digested the feedback because she realized that what other people saw as weaknesses were really "strengths on steroids." Because the executive was strong during deadline pressure, she ended up being too demanding of colleagues who owed her assignments for client meetings or projects. She went back to her peers to explain how she operates and to express her commitment to working better together.

Win back respect

Ultimately, your goal with negative feedback is to turn around not only your own behavior and the relationship but also the opinions about you in the workplace. It will probably take time to win back that respect, so prepare for the long haul. Sometimes you have to put in unpaid time or go above your typical boundaries to right the ship.

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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