On Receiving Negative Feedback

I recently realized that I hate negative feedback. I don’t know why it took me so long to understand this about myself — when I started working I wouldn’t even look at my performance reviews because I was so scared that it would contain criticism — but running an agency business that makes negative feedback unavoidable. If you run a software business and your software is buggy or your service is bad, your customers just churn or never show up. The negative feedback is implicit, and in order to get to the explicit stuff, you have to conduct user interviews and surveys, which most companies never do.

But when you run an agency business, your clients have no problem giving you negative feedback directly. On top of that, engagements are on a contract basis and clients are lot more willing to fire their agencies than their full-time employees. This raises the stakes.

To run an agency business is to see the work relationship stripped down to its essence — money in, service out. Negative feedback that has to be couched in very careful, empathetic terms when it comes to a full-time employee, can be much more blunt when communicated to an agency.

At times, this has been very difficult for me psychologically. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant household, reprimands were often severe and I still associate negative feedback with failure, fear, and being unloved.

But upon reflection, being forced to confront this is actually one of the best things that could have happened to me. People say that you should run towards the things you’re scared of. I’m scared of negative feedback, and now I’m doing a job where even if I don’t want to run, I’m being pushed towards it.

One of the reasons why I’m so scared of negative feedback, I think, is because I tend to catastrophize or generalize it. Part of this is that I’m a writer, so I’m very particular about words and when certain words are used, will rapidly associate them with other implications. For example, feedback that something I did was “inconsiderate”, or “manipulative”, or “lazy”, will immediately be escalated in my head. These words hold strong negative connotations due to my own values and insecurities.

I also tend to catastrophize out of avoidance/in order to not have to address the problem. Upon receiving negative feedback for a piece of work, I may immediately spiral towards thinking that my business is collapsing. Obviously this is histrionic, but it is also very convenient in that it removes the responsibility to actually fix the piece of work — if the business is collapsing, who cares! In fact, things are not nearly as dire as I think and probably the most productive thing to do is just to address the feedback, reflect on what longer term changes can be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and move on.

It’s interesting because in hindsight many of these thinking traps have been in place in my head for over a decade, and over time I’ve invented a number of not-always-healthy coping techniques. And while I do think I’ve been mostly functional and productive, it makes me think about what opportunities for growth, development, and joy I’ve missed out on.

Now that I recognize the problem is mostly in the emotional externalities of negative feedback, I’ve come up with some solutions to deal with it. These include:

  • realizing that people mean different things by different words — not everyone is a writer and that careful about the vocabulary they use. Just because they happened to use a word I’m sensitive to doesn’t mean it was intentional.
  • scoping the feedback — just because I did a bad job on a particular task doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.
  • literally physically break up my spirals of negativity by getting up and going for a walk.
  • drawing on prior experience to remember that negative feedback, while meaningful and important to take into account, is rarely the end of the world, or even a career or contract.
  • cross-checking negative feedback against historical pieces of negative feedback that I’ve received — if multiple independent people have given me the same piece of negative feedback, I’ll take it very seriously.
  • talking it through with loved ones — a lot of the bad feelings around negative feedback have to do with shame. Being transparent about the negative feedback I’ve received with people I trust releases some of that shame and also gives me another perspective as to whether it’s valid.
  • not procrastinating on addressing negative feedback — the longer I wait, the larger it looms in my head, when often it was a relatively small thing.