How to accept negative feedback from your team lead

Giving and receiving feedback requires a piece of courage, rationality, and empathy. Learn how to do it with grace.

If you hear the words, “Hey, I want to talk to you about that case for a second,” from your team lead, would you feel your stomach drop?

Dealing with negative feedback is hard. Everyone rationally understands how valuable it is. Receiving constructive feedback helps you grow. And when you’re part of a healthy team, you’re also free to share your own constructive feedback. This kind of safety amongst team members is an essential part of the employee experience

The problem is that humans are emotional creatures. While we might understand that negative feedback helps us grow, it still elicits an emotional response that’s hard to control. Learning to receive feedback gracefully, respond professionally, and improve from the experience is a skill that takes practice.

Here are the five core steps to accepting negative feedback from your team lead:

  1. Take an active role in the conversation.
  2. Acknowledge that knee-jerk reactions are defensive.
  3. Focus on understanding the feedback.
  4. Look for points of agreement.
  5. Decide on the next steps.

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Take an active role in the conversation

It’s always tempting to treat feedback conversations as one-sided endeavors—especially when the feedback is coming from your boss. 

It’s the team leader’s job to give feedback. So your job is just to sit there and listen to it, right?

Wrong. 

Feedback rarely does what it’s intended to do. That’s because it tends to reflect more of the giver than the receiver. When your team lead gives you feedback, it’s colored by their experiences, their biases, and their understanding of what good looks like.

But just because it’s hard, that doesn’t mean feedback doesn’t play an essential role at work. It’s still your primary tool for figuring out how to improve. It just means it takes some work to make the feedback exchange successful.

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Here’s how you do it.

Each time someone gives you feedback, it’s an opportunity for you. You have to approach feedback in this manner. As the receiver, you’re actually the one holding the cards. You dictate how the conversation goes based on how you react and what you say. The more passive you are, the less chance you have to make the feedback useful to you. 

That means taking charge of the conversation, asking questions, providing your perspective, and participating in finding solutions. 

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Acknowledge that knee-jerk reactions are defensive

No one enjoys getting negative feedback. Think about your last performance review. Even when you know you’re doing a good job, seeing a performance review on your calendar induces stress. 

Why? 

The bad news is that it’s a biological response. Negative feedback activates the same receptors in the brain that respond when you feel threatened—usually referred to as the “fight or flight” mechanism. Your adrenaline goes up, your heart starts beating faster, and you tense up.

It’s hard to respond well under those conditions.

But the good news is that this impacts everyone. And the only way to overcome it is with practice, which means receiving regular negative feedback from different people. It’s easier to respond differently when you know how you’re prone to react.

There are three types of feedback triggers:

  • What’s my initial response to this?
  • How does hearing this make me feel?
  • Why does it feel that way?
  • Truth triggers are set off by the content of the feedback. A typical response is, “You’re just wrong.” The solution here is to try to change your perspective and see more clearly.
  • Relationship triggers are set off by the person providing the feedback. You overcome this by untangling the relationship from the substance of the feedback.
  • Identity triggers are set off by your perception of yourself. This happens when the feedback attacks your self-image. A typical response is to spiral and think, “What does this say about me?” The solution is to understand the context and keep the feedback in perspective.

Being aware of these triggers is helpful in understanding why you react defensively to constructive feedback. In practice, this means that a key part of accepting feedback is observing how you’re responding.

Ask questions like:

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It might feel awkward to do this during a conversation, but it’s important. If needed, ask the person giving you feedback for a few minutes to gather your thoughts before discussing the situation further.

Focus on understanding the feedback

We tend to think feedback is only valuable if we agree. That’s a misconception. 

Feedback always comes from a different perspective, because it’s coming from somebody else. Communicating feedback always involves ambiguity and the potential for misunderstanding one another. Even if your team lead is great at giving feedback, there’s a gap between what they think, how they articulate it, what you interpret, and how you internalize it. Effective communication is the only way to bridge that gap

Say your team lead gives you feedback that you should have used a friendlier tone when talking to a customer. Your knee-jerk response is that the tone was perfectly fine.

You could:

  • Nod and hold back your opinion because you don’t want to offend your team lead. 
  • Be defensive, claiming the feedback is wrong and that you were friendly.
  • Say you aren’t quite sure where the feedback is coming from because you tried to be friendly, then ask which parts of your interaction gave that impression to your team lead.

It’s obvious which of those responses will lead to the most constructive outcome for you. Working to understand the feedback doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but it will help you further grasp your team lead’s perspective. 

Look for points of agreement

The next step in accepting negative feedback is looking for something you agree with about the feedback. It doesn’t matter how big or small. It doesn’t even matter whether or not it’s the core point of the feedback. What matters is you find some aspect that makes sense to you. 

Receiving feedback that you think is unhelpful or unfair is frustrating. The urge to dismiss the whole thing might be strong. But the more you disagree with the feedback, the more essential it is to find something—anything—you can agree with. 

Think about it this way. 

There’s an endless number of advantages—and zero disadvantages—to taking it on board:

  • Being able to handle even the worst feedback well makes you a great person to work with. 
  • Your team lead would only raise feedback with you if they felt it was important to your performance and growth.
  • There’s probably some truth to the feedback—even if you can’t see it—since other people’s perception of you is often more accurate than your perception of yourself.

Take the earlier example of adopting a more friendly tone in customer interaction. 

A friendly tone is subjective, so whether you feel your tone was friendly or not shouldn’t stop you from hearing the feedback. Maybe your takeaway is that something was missing in the content, like a workaround, that would’ve changed how your team lead perceived it. Or maybe you realize that you could have empathized with the customer more.

If you find it impossible to find anything to agree with when you’re given feedback, that’s a sign that some distance might be helpful. Take a step back and ask for some time to think about it, then follow up later with more questions about the scenario.

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Decide on the next steps

Once you’ve understood the feedback, you have some decisions to make:

  1. Will you try to change your behavior in response to the feedback?
  2. If yes, what will you do differently?

Feedback isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. You can sift through it and decide for yourself which parts are helpful and which ones aren’t. Dismissing it without serious consideration isn’t a good idea, but taking 100% of it on board without any critical thought is often unwise as well. 

If you properly understand the context and reasons for the feedback, you can make your own call about what to change and why. Your team lead can give you suggestions and advice, but you’re the one who has to take the action.

Once you’ve decided what you’ll change, try this:

  • Tell your team lead what your main takeaways are so you can make sure you’re on the same page.
  • Follow up a few weeks later to ask if they feel you’ve acted on the feedback.
  • Give them feedback about how they handled the situation and if there’s something they could’ve done differently to make the feedback more valuable to you. 
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Accepting feedback with grace

Taking negative feedback seriously is one of the only ways to improve over time.

It’s not easy, but it’s the foundation of an effective team and a powerful manager/direct report relationship. If you want to get better at accepting negative feedback, you’ll need to commit yourself to practicing the above steps consistently. And if you’re in a situation where feedback isn’t regularly being shared, you may even need to take the initiative and ask your team lead for feedback on your performance.

The better you get at receiving and acting on feedback, the faster you’ll grow. 

It’s worth the hard work!


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Nouran Smogluk Nouran Smogluk

Nouran is a passionate people manager who believes that work should be a place where people grow, develop, and thrive. She writes for Supported Content and also blogs about a variety of topics, including remote work, leadership, and creating great customer experiences.

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