Imagine you have years-worth of research and it is dismissed by a 15-word rejection letter from a journal editor. That has happened to us.
Or peer reviewers write demeaning, anonymous commentary about your work. That has also happened to us.
Or student evaluations critique your appearance or the way you speak. Yes, that’s also happened to us.
Academics also get negative feedback on research grants and funding applications, conference submissions and mainstream writing outlets, like The Conversation. And, yes, we’ve experienced all this, too. And we are not alone.
We are experts in management and psychology. The good news is, there are strategies available to help you overcome and even use negative feedback to your advantage.
Feedback is unavoidable
Feedback is a key component for any academic career. It is part of how the profession maintains rigor and quality in what it does.
While it can of course be positive, research shows, it tends to be negative. And this comes at a cost to individuals, their sense of self worth and their mental health.
Academia is not alone here. Managers across all industries use feedback to enhance workplace performance and online reviews are a fact of life for businesses. Yet, despite this, not many people know how to do it well. And, the receivers are not always able to use the feedback in the way it was intended.
On top of calls to improve training for academics, managers and leaders on how to provide helpful feedback (we do this here and here), being able to use the feedback we get is also important for our wellbeing.
Tough feedback can hurt and shake our confidence. Yet it may be necessary to process this feedback to grow and develop as professionals. And this is where positive psychology can help.
Positive psychology is the study of strengths and virtues over human deficiencies and diagnoses. It focuses on promoting strengths – like courage, optimism, and hope – as a buffer against mental ill-health.
6 things to do when you get negative feedback
1. Empathize with the person giving feedback
Do you remember receiving formal training for providing feedback? Probably not. It is likely the reviewer or person giving you feedback did not either.
And humans have a bias toward negative information too. Perhaps this is an evolutionary challenge, with early humanity needing to fixate on dangerous and threatening matters to survive.
A reviewer or manager’s potential lack of training and natural bias does not excuse their harmful comments, but it might help us to empathize with their circumstances.
Academics have complex, very busy careers. When anonymous reviews are negative, it might have more to do with their (lack of) experience and heavy workloads, rather than our work.
When dealing with negative feedback, it can help to pause, take a walk around the block or grab a cup of tea. One of the authors of this piece has the practice of reading a review and then putting it in a draw for a week before she begins to address the feedback.
Distance allows us to gain perspective and think through the parts of the feedback that are valuable and worth addressing. This puts us into a positive state of mind and prompts us to consider solutions as a way of coping.
3. Talk about what happened
Vent to some friends or your colleagues.
Affective labeling theory says when people talk about their feelings, they feel better about them. A Geneva Emotion Wheel might help label more complex emotions.
You can also try self-affirmations, the practice of recognizing the value of one’s self. Affirmations may not suit everyone’s style but if you think they will work for you, useful self-affirmations may include: “I am getting better as a researcher” or “this obstacle will help me grow.” (You can look at some more examples here).
Positive affirmations give rise to more positive emotions and this is useful because positive emotions boost our problem-solving skills.
4. Address your inner critic
Our inner critic is often an ally who motivates us to achieve. It can sometimes be toxic though, especially when receiving unwanted feedback. The inner critic prompts cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing (“I’ll never be published”) or assigning self-blame (“I’m not smart enough”).
As we know, distortions are not true and they stop us seeing the situation clearly. When these voices are left unchecked, it can lead to mental health problems.
Instead, we need to practice self-compassion. This could include, visualizing positive and non-judgmental images. Perhaps visualizing a walk on your favorite beach, without a care or concern.
Talking back to our inner critic (verbally or non-verbally) also helps. Cognitive reappraisal is the practice of identifying a negative thought pattern and changing the perspective. In response to “I’m not smart enough,” try “This time, this work was not valued, but it is valuable, and I can grow from the feedback.”
5. Reframe what happened
Our brains almost prime us to take negative feedback personally at first.
When receiving negative feedback, the primal (“fight or flight”) and emotional (“do they hate me?”) parts of our brain often jump to respond first.
But we can deliberately look for benefits, upsides and lessons if something bad happens. This is what psychologists call “positive reframing.”
For example, if you get unhelpful personal feedback on anonymous student feedback forms, it might prompt you to talk with your next group of students about the purpose of this feedback and about the importance of them being professional and constructive.
6. Look for opportunities
Each strategy above is designed to help you cope with and accept feedback. The final strategy is to focus on the opportunity.
Despite the negativity or the difficult conversation, someone took time to give this feedback. What is it that can be learned? Or done better next time?
All of this is of course assuming the feedback was constructive. Sometimes negative feedback is just toxic. In these cases, submit your work somewhere else!