Negative feedback is rarely fun, but can show up in varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes it might seem like a nice suggestion to improve, and some might feel like a crushing blow. It is the latter kind that I am focusing on in this essay.
It can be rather discomforting to hear someone talk poorly of us – or things we’ve built. However, not receiving negative feedback leads to self-delusion, so we’re much better off with it than without it.
Our body’s intuition will fight us on this conclusion tooth and nail, constantly trying to convert us to the notion that negative feedback is just a bad thing and something we could live without. But we really can’t – and much of the modern human’s struggle could be framed as learning how to receive negative feedback in a productive way.
Here are some framings that I’ve learned that help me get the most of this uncomfortable experience. To make them a bit more concrete, I will situate these framings in a hypothetical scenario of a team receiving strong negative feedback on the launch of their product. However, most are applicable to a broad range of scenarios.
🌀 Their feedback, our emotions
So we have some stinging feedback from our users. The first important thing about receiving strongly negative feedback is to recognize that this is a phenomenon that involves our emotional response. This response is a process inside of us. It is highly individual and varies greatly from one person to another.
You may have seen some people being more affected by negative feedback than others. One person may describe a negative tweet as “poisonous vitriol” where the other may chuckle at the pun the tweet makes. The intensity of the negative feedback is measured by our own emotional response to it.
We are not our emotions. We have them. Too often, it seems like they have us. If we want to learn from negative feedback, we need to learn to separate our emotions from ourselves. This is why we must learn to separate our individual response to negative feedback from the feedback itself.
⛓️ Why does this happen?
Why do we have strong emotional responses to negative feedback? I really like the framing of attachment here, specifically the attachment of identity.
When we make something, we put ourselves into it. This tiny bit of ourselves could be our engineering pride, attached to our identity of “a good software engineer”. Or it could be our sense of fulfillment, attached to our identity of “someone who does good in the world”. When people criticize our product, it will feel like they challenge these bits of identity that we embedded in our products. Behind a strong emotional response, there are nagging questions like: “Perhaps I am not as good of a software engineer as I thought I was? Am I really someone who does good in the world?” Whether we want to admit it or not, these questions were already there in our minds. The additional evidence of our failings often puts these front and center.
Being passionate about things we make is an important part of creating good products, but this passion comes with a shadow of identity attachment: when our users disagree with us about the goodness of what we’ve made, this passion will do a number on our emotions.
When we have a strong emotional response to negative feedback, we can’t process this feedback productively. Instead, we will react to our emotions. And that is often worse than not receiving feedback at all.
🧭 Orienting amidst emotional response
How do we separate ourselves from our emotional response when receiving negative feedback? This can be quite challenging. Especially when our response is strong, we often can’t even see that we’re subject to them. Our emotions become us. What we need is some sort of orienting tool that helps us step back and reflect on the soup of emotions we’re feeling.
Thankfully, Dr. Karen Horney has a great framework for this occasion: the moving toward, against, or away. We can use it as a compass to identify where our emotional response is currently taking us — and hopefully, pause and reorient.
Think of it as three paths we instinctively take when reacting to our emotions in response to negative feedback. Each has a certain story that plays unconsciously in our minds as we go down this path. Each story takes us away from processing negative feedback and applying insights from it to our future actions.
Our ability to separate ourselves from our emotions lies in being able to spot the general plot lines of these stories. I will list each path with its typical story and the extremes these stories take us to, if unchecked.
The first path we commonly take is the “away” path. The plot line here is that of avoidance and usually goes like this: “yikes, everybody is upset, maybe I should just go back to doing my thing and never ever listen to people criticize me or my work. This is fine.” The avoidance story is likely the most common of the paths. It can feel like the easiest way to deal with negative feedback – just avoid ever hearing it. While going down that path, individual engineers and entire engineering organizations can go into great lengths to reduce any exposure to actual users. Avoidance increases the disconnect between the reality inside of the team and the reality outside, which tends to end up in a total breakdown, when the difference is too great to ignore.
The second path is the “against” path. Along this road, there’s the adversarial story of being attacked – along with the urge to fight back. “These jerks, they don’t get how hard this was to get shipped” or “These people are just trolling us, they are here to cause chaos.” Somewhere, somehow, we cross the line from thinking of our users as those who we want to delight to the mob that’s out to get us. Compared to the stories of avoidance, antagonizing stories are also quite common, and they are usually easy to spot: look for a brawl, be it in meetings or chats or docs comments. Unlike the “away” path, this one feels like action. It gets the adrenaline pumping, and creates the sense of doing something. Unfortunately, it is just as unproductive. Because we are merely reacting to our emotions, we’re not actually listening to the feedback. We’re fighting the vandals who dared to deface our sacred grounds. Since the actual vandals are hard to pinpoint, there is usually a tendency for a team to splinter into fiefdoms, each with their own conception of “the enemy”.
The third and final path is when we move “toward”. When we go down this road, the story that plays in our minds goes something like this: “omg, we’re so screwed, that twitter guy is totally right, we are losers, and everything we do is horrible”. This story sounds most similar to actually receiving feedback, though it’s anything but. This story of accommodation is a pure reaction to the avalanche of self-doubt that overwhelmed all of our senses, forcing us to grasp on for any strong opinion, even if it’s that of a random Twitter guy. Many, many bad decisions were made as the result of following this path. They all have a flavor of “we should do this (or not do this) because someone else thinks it’s the right (wrong) thing to do”. In teams, the most visible effect of the story of accommodation is a rising feeling of collective self-loathing. Vibrant and unique team cultures disintegrate in the loss of self-confidence and the disorientation that follows.
🦠 The viral load
Have I mentioned that these stories also happen to be super-contagious? There’s something about our human psychology that makes us particularly susceptible to these three stories. We might prefer one over the other, but there’s definitely one that will catch us. Some of us might be reasonably immune to the “toward” or “away” paths, but oh boy, even a hint of the antagonizing story can cause us to jump, knuckles up. Some of us might be highly avoidant, and have all kinds of tricks to prevent feedback from ever reaching us. Some of us might immediately move to accommodate, revealing lack of confidence in our own decisions.
Upon receiving negative feedback about our product, our team will likely experience all three of these, simultaneously. Each individual will take their own path, contributing to the boiling soup of emotion-laden stories. If we let these stories run amok, they will wash over the team as multiple waves of viral spread, inhibiting our ability to process this feedback.
The weird part is that these stories are often based on truth, which often makes them hard to untangle from. Sometimes our users really are just trolling us. Sometimes that twitter guy is actually right. And sometimes all this negativity is just too much and we must take a break to preserve our sanity.
We are better off accepting that a mix of the three plot lines will always play out in our minds in response to negative feedback. We can’t wish them away or somehow reach the plateau of perfect rationality where we never have them again.
But if we practice noticing the stories and familiarize ourselves with the paths where they take us, we can start opening up a bit of space between ourselves and our emotions. And as we do, we increase our capacity to receive and process even the most crushing criticism.
We also don’t have to do it alone. A useful tactic that worked for me is asking someone who is less attached to the project to help me interpret the feedback. It can be quite puzzling, yet liberating to see someone else not have the same emotional response. It helps me see the story that I am trapped by – and is usually enough to get unstuck.
Putting all of this together into bullet points:
- Accept that we will all have our individual emotional response to negative feedback – and that our first instinct will be to react to our emotions, not the feedback itself.
- Have tools to orient ourselves in the midst of the response, to detach from what we’re feeling and bring our attention to the actual feedback. Dr. Horney’s framework is just one example.
- Practice using these tools as a team to reduce the spread of emotional contagion. Even the basic awareness of the underlying process could do wonders to how the team reacts to negative feedback.
- Grow a network of trusted friends and colleagues from diverse backgrounds and environments, with whom we can share the bits of feedback we’re struggling with and count on their support to help process it.
Whew, this was long. But here’s hoping that my ramblings will help you and your colleagues navigate the uncomfortable, yet ultimately essential process of receiving negative feedback. Let me know how it goes.