When it comes to giving and receiving negative feedback, most of us would rather have a root canal. In fact, many of us are so uncomfortable with negative feedback that we'd rather not even call it "negative feedback". We'd prefer to describe it as "developmental feedback", "constructive feedback", "corrective feedback", etc. And we don't just bristle against what we call it -- we chafe against the feedback itself.

Nevertheless, any professional who is committed to getting better at his or her current job, and to career advancement down the road, knows that negative feedback, when delivered appropriately, is critical to growth and improvement.

Negative feedback is crucial not just for individual leaders and teams, but for organizations as well. Take the case of the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic.

In 2008, the institution's leadership team learned through the results of the first Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers Systems (HCAHPS) that patients' perception of their experience at the clinic was well below average in virtually every individual measure. This negative feedback served as the catalyst for the clinic to completely overhaul their people strategy, resulting in increased scores in the same assessment -- beginning the very next year.

Had the Cleveland Clinic's leadership ignored, minimized, or defended itself in the face of this negative feedback, the venerable institution wouldn't have heard what their patients truly expected and needed from their healthcare teams. The institution -- and its staff -- would have suffered reputational and financial costs. Without making the commitment to digest the negative feedback, the Cleveland Clinic may not have known that they had such dramatic patience perception problem -- and likely wouldn't have embraced the changes needed to remedy it.

Far too often, we fail to digest negative feedback because we're more committed to protecting ourselves -- and our egos -- against it. We'd rather be right than have something to learn. We'd rather catastrophize than put it in perspective.

We'd rather make it about someone or something else than make it about ourselves. We'd rather shut down than listen. We'd rather say to ourselves about the feedback provider "what do YOU know?" than admit that he or she might be offering up a perspective worth considering.

Do any of these behaviors sound like you when receiving negative feedback?

  1. Dread: I make up the worst possible story about the feedback I am about to get.
  2. Discount: I minimize the importance of the feedback.
  3. Direct: I change the topic to something else, or make the feedback about someone else.
  4. Denial: I don't consider what could be true, even in a small way, about this feedback.
  5. Dissect: I argue about each element of the feedback rather than focusing on the whole message.
  6. Depart: I walk out of the conversation.
  7. Distract: I talk about other accomplishments to minimize the impact of the feedback.
  8. Defy: I reject the credibility or authority of the person giving feedback.
  9. Defend: I make excuses and/or reject the content of the feedback.
  10. Distort: I turn small pieces of feedback into big deals, and/or experience them as an attack on my character.
  11. Dramatize: I get highly emotional when receiving feedback.
  12. Disengage: I shut down emotionally and stop listening.
  13. Dwell: I ruminate about the feedback.

In order for negative feedback to have positive benefits for us, our colleagues and our companies, we need to stop stopping the feedback from having an impact, and start inviting it to teach us what we need to learn to grow personally and professionally.