I was recently going through some old papers and came across a 360-degree feedback evaluation from my corporate days. There it was, staring me in the face – two color-coded pie charts.

On the left, my glowing self-evaluation. On the right, the less-than-flattering evaluation from everyone else. And then all the specific comments and detailed ratings.

All the shame and shock from more than a decade ago came flooding back.

I remember being in tears after I opened the sealed packet and turned the page to find this feedback. It was awful. And made worse by the realization that none of the other women at the senior leadership development offsite was in the same situation.

All I could think of was: I suck.

How could I face everyone back at the office? How would I ever live this down? Could I even redeem myself? Or were they going to fire me?

Never mind that I had already been promoted 10 times in my career and had been selected for this leadership development program for high achieving women in our firm.

I’ll share what happened for me in a moment, but first let’s talk about you.

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Have you ever had negative, soul-crushing feedback at work? If so, here are three steps I found useful to handle it like a pro.

  • Allow yourself to grieve
  • Decide what the kernel of wisdom is
  • Take steps and act

Allow yourself to grieve

Getting tough feedback is, well, tough. They say not to take things personally, but when it’s feedback about who you are and how you’re showing up at work, it’s hard not to. The emotional hurt is real and acknowledging it is the first step of moving forward.

Your feelings are valid, so rather than denying your emotions, give yourself permission to be upset for a while. But make it temporary and don’t stew on it alone.

Talk to people who love and support you and cry if it makes you feel better.

Just don’t get into the blame game of who said what. I’ve seen the feedback for my team members and they often guess wrong! And remember that feedback is 50% about the giver and their context.

Nonetheless, there’s usually a kernel of wisdom in the feedback. The trick is to find it.

Which takes us to the next step.

Decide what the “kernel of wisdom” is

Once you’ve gotten over the initial shock of the feedback, it’s time to step back and read through it with a more critical thinking part of your brain.

If this were Star Trek, this would be when Captain Kirk hands over control of the situation to the unemotional Dr. Spock. (Yes, we all have an inner Spock-equivalent, even if it’s well hidden!)

In my case, talking things through with a fellow program participant and then one of the coaches helped me interpret the feedback and extract the useful nuggets. As we sifted through the data and comments together, I started to recognize patterns of behavior that were true for me even back in school days. This was my stress personality bringing out me at my worst.

As painful as it was, I’m grateful for the feedback as I wouldn’t have gained these insights otherwise.

The key is to give yourself time to absorb the information and make sense of it. That means using the executive thinking part of your brain, not the “fight of flight” part of your brain that’s trying to protect you from perceived threats. And negative feedback can feel just as threatening as being chased by a saber tooth tiger back in prehistoric times.

You can do this on your own, with the help of a trusted friend or coach, or some combination. What matters is that you do the reflection and identify the parts of the feedback that are actionable.

This brings us to the third step.

Take steps and act

When you’re in motion, you’ll feel better about yourself. Action helps you move past the emotional hurt and grow into being your best self, more of the time.

For me, the first step was to repair my relationships.

When I took on the new role, I charged in with my new ideas and tried to “drive change” without taking into account the longstanding culture, processes and systems that had been working just fine for years. While my behavior might have been acceptable back in my former work environment, here I showed up as the proverbial “bull in a china shop”.

That first month after the offsite was filled with one-to-one coffees, lunches or breakfasts with each colleague to thank them for taking the time to share their feedback. I shared what I learned and we talked about how I could be a better partner. Most importantly, I finally took the time to listen and learn more about them.

Career Mastery has been a game-changer for me. Wonderful, actionable advice that helps me be better than the day before.”

Carol Vincent

But what if the feedback is just plain wrong?

While there will be parts of it you won’t want to act on and there may be conflicting pieces of advice, it’s rare to see feedback that’s 100% off the mark.

Even if you don’t like the way the feedback is stated – as in not liking the wrapping paper someone has chosen for your gift – it pays to look for what’s of value inside.

So give yourself the gift of space to search for the nuggets that will be helpful in moving you forward and upward. Remember, we’re all works in progress and none of us is perfect. It’s just a question of what to work on now that will most help you get where you want to go.

Just don’t let the feedback make you play smaller

When you receive challenging feedback like I did, it’s a wake-up call to examine how you’re being in the world. Are you really operating at your best? What’s causing your worst self to show through?

But the purpose isn’t to squash you or turn you into someone you’re not. You have the choice of what you do with the feedback. So turn it into something positive and lift yourself up to the next level of how you show up in the world.

And as an added benefit, you’ll have gained insight into how those around you think and feel.

When you get unexpectedly challenging feedback, what matters is what you do with it

No matter how well-intentioned you are, it’s important to learn how your leadership behavior is landing with others.

Be brave enough to face the feedback and use it to learn, grow and be better. Isn’t that what you would want from your leaders and managers?

When it’s your turn to respond to challenging feedback, remember to take these steps:

  • Allow yourself to grieve – your feelings are valid so give yourself permission to work through the emotions
  • Decide what the kernel of wisdom is – tap into your thinking brain to absorb the information, make sense of it and figure out what’s worth working on
  • Take steps and act – taking action helps you move forward and grow into being your best self

We’ll all get challenging feedback at some point in our careers. When that happens, which step will be most useful for you to remember?

Leave a comment and let me know.