Get the feedback you need at work

Constructive criticism can help further your career — if you know how to take it.
Get the feedback you need at work

There are many benefits of learning to embrace feedback about your work. The right feedback can make you more confident in your strengths and alert you to weaknesses you weren't aware of.

Asking for and receiving feedback, though, can feel intimidating. Fortunately, it's possible to make the process feel more productive and less personal. Try these tips for soliciting feedback and accepting it more readily:

Do a self-audit

Before you seek feedback from others, begin with a self-audit, said James Warn, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher with the School of Business, Canberra, at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Check with your supervisor or your company's human resources department to see if your organisation has any self-assessment tools available. You may also be able to use tools from accredited coaching websites, Warn said.

During a self-audit, consider your strengths, values, and motivations, Warn suggested. Then reflect on areas in which you've struggled and on times when you've been surprised by an outcome, whether good or bad.

"Next, assess how well your skillset enables you to recognise and perform within the environment of your organisation," Warn said.

Beginning with a self-evaluation can make the process of receiving feedback more productive. If you have an idea of your weaknesses going into a performance discussion, you're also less likely to be caught off-guard when receiving constructive criticism, Warn said.

Be sure to listen

Receiving constructive criticism can sometimes make people feel attacked or emotional. That's why it's important to look at feedback as a learning tool, said Paul Arab, CPA, CGMA, vice-president of audit and advisory services at Home Federal Bank of Tennessee in the US.

"Most people want to help you," he said.

If your initial reaction is to get defensive, focus on listening first, Arab suggested. Perhaps schedule a follow-up meeting to ask questions or further discuss the feedback you received. That will give you the opportunity to digest the information to avoid responding in a way you may later regret.

"A little time and separation from the initial comments will go a long way," he said.

Ask questions

If you don't understand your colleague's recommendations, or if their feedback isn't specific enough, go back and ask questions, said Susan Peppercorn, an executive and career coach based in the US.

If you disagree with the criticism, it's also all right to bring it up with the person who gave the feedback. Just be sure the conversation has a purpose beyond fixing your bruised ego, she said.

"It's appropriate to challenge your manager when you know that the facts are on your side," Peppercorn said.

An example might be a situation in which your supervisor claims you didn't meet quarterly expectations, when in fact you know you grew the business by 15%, she said.

If something like this happens, Peppercorn recommended clarifying matters with your supervisor. During such conversations, "have your data, know your objective, [and] be unemotional and very clear", she said.

If your disagreement comes down to a matter of opinion, however, Peppercorn recommended keeping it to yourself. Consider whether the long-term relationship with your supervisor is more important than getting the final word, she said.

Look for feedback often

Getting feedback just once a year during performance reviews isn't enough, said Phillip Joubert, senior manager of business services and advisory for BDO in South Africa.

"It must be a continuous, never-ending process, as learning is a never-ending process," he said.

Asking for feedback regularly can help open lines of communication between you and your colleagues. They'll become more comfortable giving honest feedback, and you'll become more comfortable receiving it, Arab said.

Consider the source

Unfortunately, factors other than your performance can sometimes affect the feedback others give you.

When it comes to receiving constructive criticism, it's important to consider the source, Joubert said. If you know in advance of a feedback session that a particular supervisor or colleague is notoriously prickly, it might be easier to avoid taking their criticisms personally.

"At the same time, you must be open for criticism and see it as an opportunity to learn from mistakes," he said.

Sometimes others focus on your weaknesses when giving you feedback, but it's also important to discuss your strengths. Ask the other person what he or she considers to be your assets, so you can work on building those, too, Peppercorn suggested.

Written might work better

Receiving feedback can be especially intimidating for introverts, who typically require more time to process information internally. If that applies to you, consider asking for written feedback.

"I think it's a valid method for most professional situations," said Ellen Bard, a British registered psychologist, writer, and speaker currently based in Thailand.

When asking for written feedback, it can be helpful to give your colleague a deadline and ask a few specific performance-related questions, Bard said. Once you've had time to process your thoughts, it can be beneficial to follow up with a face-to-face discussion, she added.

Make changes

According to Bard, author of This Is for You: A Creative Toolkit for Better Self-Care, simply receiving feedback isn't enough.

"It's no good if you just stick it in a drawer," she said.

Bard recommended all employees have a development plan that's updated at least quarterly. Comments received during feedback sessions should be incorporated into this plan.

Take time to reflect on the feedback you receive, Warn said. You might even want to write your thoughts down in a reflection journal.

"Once you have recounted the episode in your journal, you could assess how the feedback fits in with your own self-assessment," he said, suggesting that you ask yourself if you've learned anything new about yourself.

Thank your colleagues

We all know feedback can be tough to take, but it can also be challenging to give, Bard said. That's why it's important to thank your colleagues for their input, even if it wasn't exactly something you wanted to hear.

Offering to reciprocate can also go a long way.

"Proactively share a few positives someone did on a project and one thing they can develop after each big project you do," Bard recommended. "The discipline of giving feedback will help you when getting feedback and vice versa."

While receiving feedback can be hard, the way you do it can say a lot about you to your supervisor or colleagues.

"Taking feedback graciously is a skill, and one that can often be looked upon favourably as a sign of emotional intelligence in the workplace," Bard said. 

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, an FM magazine senior editor, at