Managing Reactions to Negative Feedback

A senior manager called me recently in a rather hurried tone, ‘I have a situation with one of my subordinates, what do I do?”  Giving negative feedback is difficult — even for senior managers.  The good news is that giving effective negative feedback is a skill that can learnt and ….  should be learnt as early on in your career as possible.

Many new managers will easily vote ‘Giving negative feedback’ as the most dreaded task required of them.  One simple reason is, as one manager asked me, ‘how do we deal with the reaction?’  This anxiety embodies the fear that the situation could go from bad to worst.

Let’s look at common reactions to negative feedback and how to deal with them by first looking at how we, ourselves, react to feedback:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Resistance
  • Acceptance
  • Help

Shock and Anger

One of the strongest and most common reactions we have to negative feedback is shock and anger. This usually happens when the feedback is unexpected and we feel offended by the feedback.   When this happens we might be angry enough to say things we don’t mean and react in an emotional way.

Your staff could also react this way to your feedback.  We need to understand that shock and anger is a common, and in most cases, a temporary reaction.  Our job is to help our staff through this phase by not taking their reaction personally. We also need to accept that they might say things that they don’t mean — commit to forgiving them unconditionally and quickly so that you can help them deal with the negative feedback effectively.


At times, we react so strongly to feedback that we tend to resist the feedback all together.  This means that we question the facts and often assume that the person giving the feedback has bad intentions.  We become the ‘victims’ and show this by resisting strongly to the feedback.

Your staff might also feel so angry and confused that they begin to attack your credibility, intentions and the facts of the situation.  They might even deny the incident took place or downplay the impact of their actions.  Their resistance to feedback might draw you into anger, resulting in a ‘shouting match’ or a ‘dual of egos’.

Stay calm, focussed and understanding.  Know that when you see very strong reactions to feedback, that the person is having a really difficult time.  Help by staying calm and focussing on the facts of the situation.  Accept that your staff might attack you personally but still be forgiving.  Help the staff deal with their own reaction by empathizing but also resisting the temptation to be drawn into an argument.

Acceptance and Help

When we have got through our anger and resistance to negative feedback, we often are ready to deal with the facts of the situation.  Sometimes, we might even feel embarrassed and sorry at how strong our reaction was. We are ready to accept, change our behaviour and allow help to take place.  We don’t always get to this point because sometimes we are not helped to overcome the shock, anger and resistance that we feel when we first heard the negative feedback.

Many of your staff will react with shock, anger and resistance before they are ready to accept and get help.  Help them through the process and don’t penalize them for being human.  Accept that these are normal reactions — in fact, if you don’t see any strong reactions, probe further to find out if what you see is what your staff really feels.  Help your staff understand that you know receiving negative feedback is difficult and that you are there to help them through the process.

Stephen Yong, Principal Consultant for Blue Dot Learning, specializes in Leadership Skills for Junior to Middle Managers. For more information, please go to