How to receive tough feedback like a boss…

by | Nov 30, 2021 | Coaching, Leader Development, Professional Development

I remember starting one of my first new jobs right out of grad school and knowing right away it wasn’t working. It seemed my boss was not pleased with me no matter what I did (or did not do). I felt like I didn’t know what the expectations were, that I couldn’t do anything right and, ultimately, that I was failing.

It was an awful feeling and I dreaded going to work. I was terrified of my boss’ wrath, but I knew I couldn’t go on like this (and frankly, neither could my boss). If we were going to work together, we had to fix this. So, at my next 1:1, I took a deep breath and requested a performance evaluation. I was surprised when they said, “I think that’s a good idea.” Yikes. I was right. I knew it wasn’t working. They knew it wasn’t working. And the difficult conversation was on its way to me.

I had a week to amp up my anxiety over this conversation. I remember thinking to myself, “Ok, I’m going to try to hear what they have to say so I can fix this. I know I’m not going to like it, but I’m going to try to listen.”

The day came, and I remember walking down the hall to their office in my best suit, my heart thumping out of my chest.

My boss started the conversation with all of the expectations I wasn’t meeting. I was upset. I had no idea that this what was expected of me, and I told my boss so. They took that as my being defensive, and looking back, I could have framed my response differently to create a more positive perception. In the end, with much conflict (it was a raised-voices, heated discussion kind of meeting), it actually ended well. I thanked my boss for the meeting and immediately went to work on righting the ship.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of some tough feedback, below are my tips, and my retroactive self-assessment of how I did on each one.

  1. Keep your emotions in check: I was upset, and it likely showed. If I had a do-over, I would have practiced deep breathing to slow my mind down and maintain composure. I may have even asked to excuse myself for a moment to get myself back in order.
  2. Listen—and listen for the message: I did this well. I took notes when he my boss reviewed expectations for my role, and I did not interrupt. I stayed alert for key words about tasks and responsibilities and wrote them down, as I knew that when emotions are high, memory goes out the window.
  3. Ask questions for clarity: I could have done this better. Instead of responding that I was not clear on the expectations (which came across as defensive), I should have said, “Ok, what I’m hearing is you’re expecting x, y and z, and I am to deliver a, b, and c.
  4. Summarize for understanding: I didn’t do this at all. I should have. It would have helped both of us, and could have opened the door to more dialogue and may have provided even more opportunity to clarify anything I was not understanding.
  5. Own your piece: I knew I wasn’t performing, but at the time I felt confused as to how I could perform when I didn’t understand what was expected of me.  If I could travel back in time, I would have had a detailed discussion about expectations in my first two weeks on the job. This would have prevented the whole situation.  That was my piece to own. If I was unclear, I should have asked sooner.
  6. Be clear on next steps: When I walked out of the office, there was no lingering confusion about what I needed to do next. My next six-month review validated that I was going in the right direction. I went from a “Needs Improvement” to a “Exceeds Expectations.” My boss commented that I responded very positively to the feedback and that I had turned it around.
  7. Say thank you: Yes, at the end, I thanked my boss for the meeting, but there’s more I could have done. When my boss first shared the constructive feedback, that’s when I should have said something like, “Thank you for sharing this feedback with me. It’s hard to hear, but it means a lot to me. I want to do a good job and your feedback will help me improve.” Then I could have circled back with clarifying questions and summarizing for understanding.
  8. Follow up: I was not as proactive as I could have been. I waited until the next evaluation period (six months later). Again, if I had a do-over, I would have set up another meeting 30 days later with specific questions about how I was doing. This would have demonstrated that I was claiming ownership of my performance and being proactive in seeking additional feedback to ensure I was on the right track.

Which tips are most important for you as you prepare to hear feedback? What have you found useful?

Photo by Hybrid on Unsplash

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Nancy Jacoby,

Nancy is a registered nurse, recovering hospital administrator and ICF certified coach and consultant. She leads individuals, teams and organizations in growth, development and process improvement to yield sustained change and desired outcomes. 

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Nancy Jacoby, RN, MBA, MHSA, FACHE, ACC  |  212.779.2049  |  Connect on LinkedIn

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