“You come across as very intense and serious,” the supervisor of my internship stated matter-of-factly. I was feeling badly about how my mid-year mock board review had just gone, but I was about to feel even worse as my supervisor delivered what would be the first memorable piece of negative feedback that I received in a professional setting: “People need to have the sense that they would enjoy working with you for them to review you positively.”
As my outside went stiff — I could feel my jaw tightening, my eyes narrowing and my posture going steely — my insides went haywire. “How dare you call me intense and serious as if these are negative traits,” I inwardly seethed. “People want to work with me! I am nice and fun and responsible and the best coworker ever!” (The irony of my *intense* internal reaction wasn’t lost on me, even in the moment.)
While the memory of this meeting made me bristle for a long time, at some point I transitioned from feeling mad at my supervisor for shedding light on the more negative aspects of my workplace demeanor to feeling grateful for his candor. I look back on our conversation — and my processing of it — as a critical moment of personal insight and a turning point in how I conduct myself professionally.
The experience also taught me valuable lessons about how to accept and integrate negative feedback graciously and productively. Here are three:
Take your time.
You know how they say you shouldn’t grocery shop on an empty stomach? Well, considering that it’s almost impossible not to be hurt/angry/defensive in the first instance of receiving criticism, maybe it’s not the best moment to discuss feedback at length.
If I had forced myself to have a longer conversation in that moment, I would have said things I’d later regret. Instead, I asked if we could meet again in a few days, giving myself time to nurse my bruised ego (I called my best friends and made them tell me how much fun I am and how much they would love to work with me) and to discern whether or not I wanted to take the feedback seriously (did I value my supervisor’s ethics and opinions?). Once I felt less fragile and more sure that I trusted my supervisor, I was more prepared to explore the feedback with him.
Take the feedback seriously.
Look, it’s hard to take negative feedback, but it’s also really hard to give it, so if someone makes the effort of saying something difficult, it behooves us to listen attentively.
In my case, I thought I took my work seriously, not that I was overly serious, and the feedback made me realize that by tipping towards the latter, I was becoming less than an ideal coworker. Over the course of several weeks, I considered ways to show my lighter side at work, and I asked for the input of a work-friend, who told me that I often furrow my brow — sending a signal of crossness — during meetings. I had no idea I had this habit, and increased awareness helped me to break it.
Don’t forget the feedback.
While I’m a firm believer that we all have the capacity to improve ourselves, I also think that our personalities predispose us to certain ongoing strengths and weaknesses. I’m never going to have to worry too much about missing deadlines, as time management is one of my gifts, but I’ll always have to be on the lookout for the kind of intensity that makes me not-so-pleasant to be around. When my supervisor first gave me the negative feedback, I wanted to permanently erase the conversation from my memory. Now, I’m happy to have it tucked in my back pocket. Just a few weeks ago, I found my voice’s volume elevating and tone intensifying during what should have been a congenial conversation, and because I’m aware of this tendency, I was able to quickly notice and reverse it.
It’s hard enough to accept our own limitations, let alone to have someone else draw attention to them. But not only is receiving feedback a component of most jobs, it’s also a doorway to growth. Learning how to accept and integrate negative feedback productively has made me a better employee, co-worker, and person.
Originally published on January 27, 2020.