Stories about Software


The Least Pleasant List

Negative feedback is something with which we all have to contend, and probably on a fairly regular basis. It comes in a whole lot of forms with varying degrees of merit or importance: official performance reviews, talks with coworkers, miscellaneous gossip, heated discussion with loved ones, and even things like comments on a blog post or publication (I love The Oatmeal’s treatment of this last one — see the section about comments). You may or may not be expecting it, but nevertheless, it tends to hit you like a slap in the face.

I usually respond to negative feedback by trying to understand what flaw of the feedback provider is causing them to be wrong about me. Perhaps they’re simply some kind of crank or idiot, or maybe it’s more elaborate than that. They might have serious psychological problems or else a diabolical motivation for hatching a conspiracy against me. Maybe they’re jealous. Yeah, totally.

But after a while, I stop thinking completely like a child and allow just the teeniest, tiniest bit of introspection. I mean, obviously, the person is still a jealous moron, but it is possible that maybe showing up late to work and snapping at everyone I talked to all morning could have been just the slightest bit off-putting to someone. I’ll generously allow for that possibility.

I am, of course, exaggerating for effect, but the point remains — I immediately respond to negative feedback by feeling defensive or even hostile. It’s easy to do and it’s easy to take feedback badly. And to make matters worse, there is definitely feedback that deserves to be taken badly such as someone simply being rude for no reason. Not all negative feedback is even reasonable. The end result is that it becomes very hard to make feedback lemonade out of the negative lemons your critics are lobbing at you.

But I urge you to try. Here’s an exercise I’m contemplating. Whenever I get negative feedback, legitimate or spurious, I’ll make a note about it. I’ll jot it down in some kind of notebook or perhaps make a spreadsheet or Trello board out of it, and I’ll let it digest for a while. Once somewhat removed from the initial feedback, I can probably filter more objectively for validity. If I can make some actionable improvement, I’ll do so. Every now and then I’ll check back to see if the things I used to get the feedback about have changed and if I seem to be making strides. Maybe such a scheme will be worthwhile for me and perhaps it might be for you too, if you’re so inclined.

It’s not easy to take a frank look at yourself and admit that you have shortcomings. But doing so is the best way to improve on and eliminate those shortcomings. It’s hard to recognize that negative feedback may have a grain of truth or even be dead on. I know because it’s hard for me. But it’s important to do so if you’re serious about achieving your goals in life.

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Steven Hunt
Steven Hunt
10 years ago

Good article, this is definitely something I myself have had issue with in the past as I think most other programmers have too. I really enjoy your articles that focus on the human side of the industry.

Erik Dietrich
10 years ago
Reply to  Steven Hunt

Thanks! It’s nice to get feedback like that. I try to mix it up a bit to alternate between technical content and opinions and just general musings on life as a techie.


[…] (although this review is not going to be short and sweet) – I’ll link to these inline: one is about better dealing with negative feedback, and the other is about keeping an perpetually open mind and lean into learning and making small, […]