Accept, reframe, reject

A Work Note

Everyone gets shitty feedback sometimes. There are a variety of reasons for this, starting with the fact that giving feedback is difficult and most people are terrifically bad at it. But even those who have developed strong feedback skills will still sometimes do it poorly, because the attention and care required to do it well are so often in short supply; or because the systems we occupy do not incentivize the effort. All of this means that shitty feedback is out there, and while we can and should work to prevent it, we also need mechanisms for dealing with it when it happens.

A lot has been written about how to avoid giving bad feedback, but I want to tackle the flip side: what do you do with feedback that sucks?

First, let’s note the difference between shitty feedback and uncomfortable feedback. Good feedback is often uncomfortable, especially when it highlights the ways in which we’re not living up to our own expectations. If someone thoughtfully, clearly, and credibly calls you out on, say, using biased language, that’s great feedback—even if it stings a bit to hear it, or if their delivery is a bit awkward, or if they catch you at a bad time. There are many ways for feedback to suck, but eliciting discomfort isn’t one of them.

So how do you recognize feedback that does suck? Poor feedback may be unactionable—a situation that is often the case when feedback is rendered as a judgment on your personality or style rather than an observation of a specific behavior. It may be implausible or lack credibility, especially if it comes from someone whose knowledge of the subject at hand is in doubt. It may be delivered poorly, in a spirit of resignation or punishment, rather than with a genuine hope for learning or growth. It may also be biased—sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic, etc.—in which case it may barely be feedback at all, but merely a slur disguised as such. And as if even one of these wasn’t bad enough, shitty feedback is often a combo play—unactionable and biased, or lacking both credibility and clarity.

Ideally, being on the receiving end of bad feedback would be an opportunity for discussion—to give feedback on the feedback, and workshop it together until it was good. But healthy feedback cultures are sadly as rare as shitty feedback is common, so this path often feels foreclosed. That said, there’s the question of how to respond to the feedback and the question of what to do with it, and the latter is not dependent on others: anytime you get feedback, no matter how it’s delivered or what it contains or who it comes from, you have a choice as to what to do with it. In particular, you can choose whether to accept the feedback, reframe it, or reject it.

Accepting the feedback sounds like just what it says: consenting to the feedback, taking it in, and using it. This is the obvious choice when feedback is good, and it’s easy to do when feedback is both good and complimentary—as in the case of useful praise. It can take a little more intentional effort to accept feedback that’s critical, but if the feedback is genuinely good (i.e., clear, credible, actionable, and delivered with grace), that’s exactly what you should do.

But of course lots of feedback isn’t good. When you get shitty feedback, the first thing to do is pause: take a minute, or an hour, or a day, to process whatever feelings come up. You may be angry, or disappointed, or worried, or several other things. All of those feelings are legitimate, and it’s right to give them some space to work through you. Once you’ve got enough distance to reflect on the feedback, ask yourself, is there anything in this that’s useful? Anything that could serve me? If yes, great—the next step is to reframe it.

Here’s an example, borrowing from feedback I once received. Some years ago, I made a presentation to a leadership group. Afterwards, my manager approached me and said, exasperated, something like, “You’re always so nervous when presenting, it undermines your credibility. You’ll never be taken seriously if you stay like this.” This was, to be clear, totally shitty feedback! It was shitty because it presumed an underlying emotional state—nervousness—rather than commenting on an observed behavior—say, talking too quickly. It was also delivered with an air of annoyance, which was unhelpful, and it implied an impending punishment, which would make anyone defensive. It failed to acknowledge the gendered expectations about who gets to be taken seriously—essentially, giving me feedback on something I had little control over. And rather than asking a question, it drew a conclusion—and an erroneous one at that (I was not, in fact, nervous).

That said, after thinking on it, I realized that one underlying lesson was that I did tend to talk too fast when presenting, and that if I practiced slowing my speech down, my presentations would have a bigger impact.

That’s reframing. And to be clear, the value of reframing isn’t in supporting the giver of the feedback or excusing their poor (or biased) delivery. The value is in creating an opportunity for you to learn something useful, an opportunity that might have been lost otherwise. Only you get to decide if reframing is worth it.

Not all feedback can or should be reframed. Some feedback is so toxic or unhelpful that there isn’t any utility to be found in it, or there’s just no way to turn it around into something constructive. Here, you absolutely have the right to exercise the choice to reject it. That could look like an explicit refusal—say, telling the giver you cannot accept it, and why. Or it could mean being superficially polite—saying, “Thank you, I’ll take that under advisement”—and then quietly refusing to internalize or act on the feedback. In either case, there may be consequences to rejecting feedback, so you will have to weigh your options and decide what’s best for you. Rejecting feedback from a manager or higher up may lead to a productive conversation about what good feedback looks like, and what you and your peers need from leadership. Or, it may mean you lose support in the organization, which could translate into anything from missing out on a choice opportunity to being skipped over for a promotion all the way up to being fired or forced out. These potential consequences, or the fear of them, is why it’s so rare to hear anyone advocate for rejecting feedback. The cost often seems too high; the violation of corporate norms—which argue for deference to leadership at all times—a step too far.

But there are costs to accepting shitty feedback, too. They may not be as easily measured, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t heavy or real. Accepting truly bad feedback—feedback that’s biased or that passes judgment on who you are—can feel like drinking poison. It can wreck your confidence, breed imposter syndrome, torpedo your self-trust. It invites you to contort yourself into appearing to be someone else, all while your true self suffers the bruises and fractures necessary to shapeshift into a form that others unreasonably expect of you. We’re trained to think the external consequences are the heftier ones, because we can count them, while the internal outcomes are merely something to bear, preferably quietly. But I think this is wrong. I think the soul-splintering that arises from taking in harmful feedback is worse than anything that your manager or their manager can do to you. And while you can’t control what other people give to you, you can decide what to do with it. You can turn it away.