How to respond to and handle negative feedback at work

Updated 30 September 2022

In any field of employment, you're bound to receive both positive and negative feedback from your co-workers, managers, clients and customers at some point. Any form of feedback can be useful, as it can help you identify mistakes so that you can avoid them in the future and become even more confident and reliable as an employee. If you're working to improve yourself, you can take steps to respond well to feedback and use it as an opportunity to grow and learn. In this article, we explain what negative feedback is and how to handle it in the workplace.

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What is feedback?

Feedback is when a supervisor, manager, customer or colleague offers you their opinion regarding your performance or productivity. In many scenarios, this is a natural part of the work, such as where quality assurance is an integral part of the process. This opinion can be critical, advisory or even complimentary in nature. Typically, if you perform well and are diligent in your work, you're going to receive lots of positive feedback. The opposite is also true, although it's important to remember that most feedback is just an opinion and therefore fallible. What's important is knowing how to deal with it.

What is positive and negative feedback?

Feedback, whether it's positive or negative, is information or an opinion given or obtained from others about one's actions or performance. In a business setting, employees seek out both positive and constructive feedback from their superiors to determine whether they are achieving goals that were set for them. It's essential for employees' development that they learn how to handle both types of feedback gracefully so that they can make changes where needed. Negative and positive feedback are explained below:

Positive feedback

Positive feedback is when someone compliments you on something that you've done. For example, they might tell you that you did excellent work on a project. This kind of feedback tells you that your boss or co-workers appreciate your efforts. It gives you a positive feeling about what you do for a living and can boost your confidence in the workplace. Positive feedback can also reassure you that your efforts are effective, allowing you to focus on making improvements elsewhere.

Related: Positive feedback: why it's important and how to give it

Negative feedback

When someone criticises one of your actions or projects, even if it's done constructively, it's negative feedback. In these cases, people are focusing on what you did wrong rather than appreciating what you did right. Most people are going to hear this kind of feedback at some point in their career, so it's important to know how to respond and handle it.

It can be difficult to hear that someone thought that something about your work wasn't of a high enough standard, but sometimes these criticisms can be more valuable than positive ones. If you're trying to improve as a professional, listen carefully to any feedback you receive and try to determine if it's valid.

Negative vs positive feedback differences

Typically, you want to develop yourself into someone who receives more positive feedback than negative. A positive feedback loop can be quite beneficial. Initially, you achieve something good, such as winning an award of some kind. This makes you feel really good about yourself and you feel more confident in your abilities because you know that others recognise them as well. Their positive feedback reinforces your confidence, which can encourage you to take on new challenges that can help you improve further, which results in more positive feedback.

In contrast, negative feedback happens when you don't achieve something. It might be because you failed to meet a deadline or it could just be that something happened that hindered you. Either way, when you don't achieve something, your confidence decreases and self-doubt can start to develop. You might become less motivated and you may struggle even more to meet targets. This further damages your confidence and can cause further performance issues. While positive feedback loops can help you achieve success at a good pace, avoiding unnecessary negativity is important if you want to maintain your confidence.

Related: 12 great pieces of advice on how to give feedback

Responding to negative feedback

Receiving feedback can sometimes come as a surprise, so it can be helpful to prepare for it beforehand in a calm environment. Most people are going to experience less positive feedback at some point in their career, so having a predetermined approach can help you handle it professionally. Some things to consider include:

Listen carefully

The most important thing to remember is to listen when you hear feedback. It can be natural to want to respond immediately and counter any negative claims you hear, but this can be counter-productive. Instead, listen carefully to what the other person is saying and consider the validity of their claims. You might encounter feedback that's delivered in an unkind manner, but it may still contain elements of truth. In most cases, you're going to find that some of it is true and other elements of the criticism aren't, but you can only determine this if you listen.

Assess it factually

When you hear feedback, it can be natural to perceive it as a personal criticism, but often this isn't the case. An individual may offer you constructive criticism that's solely related to your performance at work, without implying anything about you as a person. Try to assess the validity of the claim itself and understand whether the critique is directed at you personally or just an aspect of your work. It's often the latter case, which means that the other person is probably just trying to help you improve.

Related: How to measure success at work: A step-by-step guide


Even if you're able to respond well to feedback, you might occasionally be reluctant to adopt any advice. This can be more common if the person advising you did so in an unpleasant manner. It's important to remember that someone can still offer useful advice even if they're delivering it in a manner that you dislike. Just as you consider their feedback, also consider your own reaction and try to determine if it's valid. Whenever feedback is constructive, try to act on it to improve yourself.

Related: How to give feedback to your boss (with examples)

How to give negative feedback

In some cases you may find that you're required to give a colleague your own feedback, such as if you're a team leader, quality assurance professional or manager. This can help them improve their performance, but it can be a challenge to convey the information in a way that's acceptable to the other person. Below are some steps you might consider when offering someone else feedback:

1. Assess their mistakes

If you're going to offer negative feedback, this is almost always because of a mistake or shortcoming in your colleague's performance. Prior to mentioning it, it's a good idea to assess what happened. Was the situation entirely in their control or did external factors affect their work? Was there anything they could have done to avoid these external factors or mitigate them? Did they overlook established procedures that could've helped avoid the situation? By asking yourself questions like these, you can help ensure that your feedback is factual.

2. Speak to them alone if possible

Many people are more willing to accept feedback if you aren't giving it in front of other people. For this reason, it's often a good idea to ask your colleague if you could speak to them alone. This allows you to give them your feedback without potentially causing embarrassment. They're also more likely to listen and take your advice. You can communicate this by saying that you'd like to discuss their performance in private, which doesn't indicate your intentions and can reduce unwanted speculation.

3. Stay professional

Even if you know your colleague personally, it's important that you offer your feedback in a professional manner. If you're concerned that they may take it personally, it can be a good idea to reassure them at the beginning of your interaction that this is purely performance-related. Try to maintain your professionalism even if they react in an unprofessional manner.

4. Use facts

Although feedback is an opinion, your opinion is going to be much more valid and persuasive if you use facts to convey your message. These are something that you can think about and prepare in advance. This approach can also reassure your colleague that you're not criticising them personally.

5. Allow them to respond

Receiving feedback can be difficult and allowing your colleague to respond can help them feel valued. It can also help you to understand why they had trouble getting work done and you might be able to help them find a solution. Remember that it's best to avoid getting into a debate regarding the merits of your criticism, so simply listen and consider what they say.

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