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The Best Ways to Respond to Unfair Feedback at Work

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Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

Early in my career I had an interaction with a boss I now regret. She began by saying, “I want to give you some feedback on your work.” With a list in front of her, she began to describe all the things she felt I had been doing poorly. She made little eye contact and had a deadpan tone. As she spoke, my heart pounded, and I began to sweat. I was angry.

The first three were tasks I wasn’t responsible for; my coworker owned those duties. The remaining feedback was unexpected because it was about deliverables others had said were high quality. I had been working for her for almost a year and she had never indicated I was doing anything wrong. Not only did I feel dumped on but half of it was flat-out wrong. While I did correct her on the items that were inaccurate, I stayed silent on the other stuff. I left the meeting upset and feeling dejected. I decided she was a bad boss, held a grudge, and quit for full-time graduate school soon after.

Certainly, I could blame my manager. Her approach to giving feedback was dismal. What I have since learned, however, is that we can’t control the abilities of our bosses. All we can control is our reaction to them. Moreover, bosses make mistakes—they’re not perfect. What I regret most, though, is not sticking around to talk about it. I didn’t stand up for myself because I didn’t know how. Instead, I acted impulsively. Speaking up when you get inaccurate or unfair feedback is a skill that anyone can develop. I have, and you can too. Here are some tips.

What to say when a boss criticizes your work

Often, the first reaction to hearing feedback is to agree or disagree with it. Do neither. Instead, say thank you, even if it’s unfair or inaccurate. The majority of bosses are uncomfortable giving feedback, and they might be fearing your reaction. Saying thank you will help neutralize emotions for you both. You also demonstrate a willingness listen, which shows maturity and professionalism. It might sound like, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

If you find your heart-racing or a strong reaction coming on, you might say, “Thank you. Can I have some time to process this?” Giving yourself space and time to consider the feedback is helpful, and showing your ability to receive it well is even better.

Ask questions and take notes

With cooler emotions, it’s easier to ask questions and have a dialogue. Seek out examples and context. Inquire about your manager’s expectations and what about your performance, specifically your work, isn’t meeting the expectation. Get clear on the frequency of the issue. Is this a one-off issue or a repeated pattern of behavior?

The more insight you can get into your boss’s evaluation of you, the more targeted you can be about addressing it. Also, keep in mind this is an evaluation of your work performance, not you as a person. Keep your mindset focused on the work. Beating yourself up or continuing to feel dejected won’t help you move forward.

Seek out other feedback

Your manager’s opinion is a single data point. While it’s an important one, it is still the perspective of just one person. Seek out feedback from trusted colleagues to gauge how significant it is. Let’s say your boss thinks you’re always late to meetings but you disagree. Ask your coworkers. If they agree, then you know this is a big problem. If they don’t, then you make sure you are on time for every meeting you’re in with your manager from now on.

This is about the having the ability to adapt your behavior to the expectations of others. It is a skill that will serve you well throughout your career.

Step into their shoes

Try on some empathy for your supervisor. This is to seek an understanding of their experience. Do they have a heavy workload? What kind of manager do they have? Are they under a lot of pressure? When they gave you the unfair feedback, is it possible they were just having a bad day?

Giving your boss the benefit of the doubt isn’t just helpful; it’s humane. This was my biggest regret in my interaction. I remember my boss being under a lot of pressure, and we all worked long hours. I could have given her more grace, which is to show kindness even though I thought she didn’t deserve it. Instead, I held a grudge.

Be intentional about responding to the feedback

This was some advice I received many years later: Be obvious to your boss that you’re acting on it. Let’s say your boss thinks you’re not being a team player and communicating well with the team. After you have worked more closely with your peers, tell your manager. It might sound like, “To keep you updated, I met with Alice today to discuss how our work connects. It was a good meeting, and we plan to meet regularly.” Bosses are busy and may forget to pay attention to your efforts. Being obvious about your efforts can help.

Getting corrective feedback at work is expected. It is information intended to improve performance, but sometimes, it will be wrong or feel unfair. How you handle it is an indicator of your ability to maintain positive and productive relationships at work. This feedback will no doubt sting, but by keeping your emotions in check, talking it through with your boss and others, and then taking action, you’ll be on the right track to handling these situations effectively.

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