TWO weeks ago I wrote my 150th column for the New Straits Times. It was quite a momentous occasion for me, as I brim with pride that I am a columnist for Malaysia's oldest newspaper, still in print.
With much gusto I forwarded my column to pretty much everyone in my contact list, and I received many congratulations. But along with all the lovely and encouraging messages, I also got back a rather disconcerting note.
It was from a former employee, whom I had inadvertently sent the message to, in my earnestness.
He left his job unceremoniously without proper notice. But I didn’t bother much because I was truly glad that he decided to go. He had some bad habits with intoxicants, which I simply could not tolerate.
It turns out that more than a year later he continued to be unhappy with me.
I noticed the time stamp on his irate message. It was dispatched at 3.07am. I assumed he was inebriated when he decided to send off this rather harsh judgement of my leadership style.
Of course, I could have brushed it aside as the rantings of a disgruntled former employee with a personal problem. Instead, I decided to find some meaning in what he was angrily trying to say to me.
Even though the message was not accurate, I still replied him by acknowledging his feedback. I told him that I was sure that what he said was valuable to my journey of personal growth and development.
This made me reflect on how you should deal with feedback at work, especially the negative ones that sometimes feel like a personal attack.
When a colleague is being critical about your work, or you are getting a dressing down from your boss because you stumbled in your work, and that feedback is unexpected, it becomes very hard to respond appropriately.
Often, you will get caught up in the immediacy of the moment. This will make you lose control and you will not be able to be on top of your emotions or at least deal with that feedback properly.
To be honest, my first reaction to what I thought was an unfair message by this former employee, was to write back to him and tell him what a loser he was.
But because in that instant, I remembered my prescription to my trainees and coachees, I was able to take that feedback and act on it.
So how should you respond when you are blindsided by negative feedback?
Here’s the first, and hardest thing to do. Do not interrupt and just listen!
The reason for this is to truly understand exactly what is being communicated to you. Only when you listen, you actually glean important facts, before you should respond.
You need to comprehend whether what is being said to you is a fact or an opinion.
For example, if you were told that you did not include an item for discussion in a meeting; that would be a fact. But if someone argues that you conducted the meeting badly; that is an opinion.
Being able to distinguish between feedback which is factually correct and feedback that is an opinion, is important for when you respond. So you need to listen carefully.
Listening also helps you discern the accuracy of the feedback. Sometimes people are not skilled or articulate enough to present their criticism in a way that is palatable to you. So you tend to brush aside that feedback. But in reality, what they are saying to you might actually still be true.
When you listen, you also figure out the motive behind what is being said to you.
If the person giving you the feedback is someone you trust, or a person who is a reliable sounding board, you’ll definitely need to pay attention.
If the person giving it to you is an egomaniacal disgruntled former employee, who sends you a message in the middle of the night after a heavy drinking session, you should still be professional, but you might want to take it with a very large pinch of salt.
The second thing I remind myself and everyone I train is that when feedback is given, you must not be unduly emotional or defensive, when you respond.
In reality it is very easy to become defensive or angry when criticisms are inaccurate, petty, irrational, or simply weird. But, screaming back will never be useful or helpful.
For example, if I had tried to prove that my former employee was wrong, I would have had to become argumentative with him. And, I would have closed myself up from any useful information because it was hidden in an emotionally charged and badly worded text message.
I find that it is best when I respond to negative feedback without actually crafting a plan to reply.
Listen to understand, and be unemotional. This is the key. When you can take negative feedback and turn it into a positive outcome for yourself, you will keep growing.
Can you handle negative feedback?
Shankar R. Santhiram is managing consultant and executive leadership coach at EQTD Consulting. He is also the author of the national bestseller “So, You Want To Get Promoted?”