How to not take negative feedback personally at work

Three things to remember when you handle criticism in the workplace.

I often look like this when I take feedback personally.

I recently finished reading a book called, The Four Agreements. The title is a bit hokey. But the content is spot-on.

The book talks about the importance of creating personal freedom. One of these four agreements to create personal freedom is: “Don’t take things personally.”

This really hit home for me. I realized how often I take things personally — especially when it comes to giving and receiving feedback in the workplace.

Our tendency is to interpret the feedback we hear as a personal attack. It’s the biggest reason for why we don’t ask others for feedback.

When someone gives us feedback on our performance at work or about how our company is doing, we get an icky feeling in the pit of our stomach. “What?! How could this person think that?!”

We’re scared to hear something that we might not want to hear. So we avoid asking for feedback.

That’s a problem.

Not wanting to hear feedback means we shut ourselves off from information that will almost certainly be useful in some way.

In any piece of feedback, there is a nugget of helpful information. You’re guaranteed to learn something about a person or your company. Maybe it’s about how your actions are perceived by your employees, or the sentiment about a recent change you made to the company — that information is useful.

You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but you will learn something in listening to it.

The key is to not take feedback personally. Here’s how…

First, remind yourself: “It’s not all about me.”

There are other external forces shaping why a person may be giving you this feedback.

Maybe something happened earlier that day that caused them to be in a sour mood. Or, maybe something happened with their old boss that’s caused them to believe “this work environment sucks.” It has nothing to do with you.

Second, remind yourself: “I don’t need to be liked.”

You don’t need your employees to like you. You do need them to like their jobs and feel fulfilled and excited and motivated to work. But you don’t need them to like you as a person.

The minute you let go of the notion that you don’t need to be liked, by your employees, your leadership team, etc., your focus begins to shift toward what’s best for the company overall. Doing so allows you to open up and hear things that you might’ve previously taken personally.

Third, remind yourself of what you care about.

You do care about your company being successful. You do care about creating the best environment for your employees to thrive.

So if that’s the case, focus on hearing that feedback through the filter of:

“How can I listen for information that will help move my company forward?”

After all, that’s what you want. You want your company to do well. Listen for things that will help you meet that goal — everything else is secondary or irrelevant.

Granted, it’s incredibly hard to not take something personally.

But in reminding yourself of these three things — it’s not about you, you don’t need to be liked, and you care deeply about your company as a whole — you can begin to escape the trap of taking things personally.

By committing to not taking feedback personally, you open your mind to suggestions that could help your company. Employees will appreciate your willingness to ask for feedback — I promise.

You and your company will be so much better for it.

Chin up, CEOs: The business problems you’re facing, we’re all facing

The challenges of running a business are felt by all of us as business owners. Trust me.

What it feels like to run a business, most of the time…

Last month, I met with several CEOs. One of them was on the brink of shutting down his business.

His company was having serious cash flow problems. A $30,000/month office lease was pushing his business closer and closer to bankruptcy each day.

Upon hearing this, one of the other CEOs in the room sighed all too knowingly:

“Well, I’m about to sign a 22-million dollar lease if it makes you feel any better.”

We all laughed. In that room together, we’d realized one comforting, relieving truth:

This job of being CEO is hard. And it’s hard for everyone.

It doesn’t matter if you run a 10-person company with a $30,000 lease or a 200-person company with a $22 million lease. If you’re a CEO, you know what hardship feels like. Problems don’t go away. They only evolve. And everyone faces them.

Everyone goes through this. Everyone.

I was reminded of this again more recently when I attended Owner Camp in Denver. It’s a retreat held several times a year where thirty or so digital agency owners come together to talk about the highs and lows of running a company.

You realize this feeling of “ugh wow this is really hard” is not unique to you. You’re not alone. Most business owners (if not all) don’t really know what they’re doing. There’s no where you can go learn “How To Run a Company.” There’s no instruction manual.

As a new CEO, this is music to my ears. I’ve been running Know Your Company for nine months now, and I’ve often times wondered, “Am I the only one struggling this much? Is it supposed to be this hard?”

So to hear from folks who’ve been running companies for twelve, thirteen, fourteen years and hear them say, “Yeah this is hard for me too”… It gives me peace of mind that I’m not screwing things up too badly.

And you as a CEO are not screwing things up, either. Most likely, you’re actually doing pretty okay. Things aren’t as bad as you think they are.

Your problems are normal. The self-doubt, the frustration, the road blocks, the things that blindside you and derail you from where you thought you were heading….That’s the trade-off you make when you decide to take the road less traveled and start a company. When you’re trying to create something from nothing, and have a direct impact on people’s lives — it’s hard.

So don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember that it’s hard for everyone who is on this path, as well.

Remember that this job is hard for everyone.

Futility: one of the mistakes that make people quit

Why do people quit their jobs? Not feeling heard might be the reason.

Futility has been found to be 1.8 times more common than fear as a reason for employees not speaking up to their managers. According to a 2009 Cornell National Social Survey, more employees reported withholding their ideas due to a sense of futility (26%) than a fear of personal consequences (20%).

In other words, it’s not that we’re merely scared of giving feedback. It’s that we don’t think anything will come of the feedback when we voice it. Futility, more than fear, is why employees don’t give feedback or choose not to speak up to their bosses.

Not feeling heard is one of the reasons why people quit their jobs

A few weeks ago, a friend told me he was thinking about quitting his job. He said it was because of communication breakdowns between him and his boss. Small moments of poor communication had snowballed into a deeper, gnawing frustration for my friend.

I asked if he’d mentioned these moments to his boss. Maybe his boss had no idea these were problems in the first place.

My friend acknowledged that this was most-likely true. But then he said this:

“Even if I did speak up, I don’t think anything would change.”

His words struck me. I had almost forgotten — I had felt the exact same way a few years ago.

Before KYC, I was an employee at another company. Just like my friend, I was unhappy at work. But just like my friend, I didn’t tell my boss about it.

Why? Part of it was due to personality. I’m an introvert. I didn’t want to come across as a “know-it-all” to my boss. Another part of it was fear. I was worried that my boss would interpret my feedback as a personal attack.

But those weren’t the biggest reasons holding me back.

The biggest reason I didn’t give my boss feedback is I believed that even if I did speak up, nothing would change. I believed my boss wouldn’t do anything with my feedback. No action would be taken. And if nothing was going to change, what was the point of me saying anything?

My friend had felt the exact same way. This sense of futility is why we both didn’t speak up. And, as mentioned before, we’re not the only ones to have felt like this (1,2).

So how do you help your employees overcome this sense of futility?

If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. Not doing that as a common bad manager mistake that make people quit. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place — they simply want action to be taken.

Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent company culture and a happy workplace, you can’t just talk about it. You have to act in an open and transparent way.

How to avoid the typical bad manager mistake and and avoid good people to quit:

  1. Recognize the messenger
    How do treat the people in your company who do choose to speak up? Amanda Lannert, the CEO of Jellyvision, told me that during an all-hands meeting, she publicly thanked an employee that gave feedback. Even though she didn’t agree with the employee feedback, she wanted him to know his voice was heard and his feedback was not in vain, helping maintain the employee engaged.
  2. Explain why you’re not doing something
    If you receive a piece of feedback that isn’t practical or doesn’t align with the company’s vision, tell your employees that. Expose your decision-making process. If you don’t, employees will wonder, “What ever happened to that idea I suggested?” They’ll assume that you’re not open to receiving new ideas, and they’ll hesitate to bring up feedback.
  3. Act on something small
    Acting on feedback — no matter how small — is the most powerful way to encourage employees to give feedback and to contribute to employee engagement. For example, Dave Bellous, the co-CEO of Yellow Pencil, learned that his company needed a new phone service. So he promptly changed their phone service, and saw an immediate shift in his team’s morale and workplace happiness. This one unassuming change yielded huge results. All because he acted on something small quickly.

At the end of the day, acting on feedback is how we encourage our employee feedback more openly. If we focus on what we do more than what we say, more employees will see that speaking up is not futile.

When I think back to a few years ago when I was an unhappy employee, this action was all I needed to feel comfortable speaking up.

And for my friend thinking about quitting his job, that’s all he needs too.

Not acting on feedback is just one of the many mistakes that make people quit their jobs. Make sure to check out our guides and learn to build a happy workplace that keep your employees engaged: