Guest posts / Women in tech

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to accept negative feedback

“We need to hear often and clearly what we are doing well and what needs to be improved,” writes Jessica Hall. But it's not always that easy.

Ah, stage five: Excitement. (Courtesy image)
Jessica Hall originally gave a talk on this topic at ELA Conference 2016 in Philadelphia. She adapted it for Technically DC.
One night this fall, I was so upset I couldn’t sleep. It took 20 minutes of yoga to calm me down enough to go to bed.

That’s because, earlier in the day, I’d presented a whole new version of the training program we do with all of our employees, a program that I’m responsible for. I thought it was OK. It needed some work but I thought that we were headed in the right direction and could make adjustments over the next three test sessions.
That was until around 10 p.m. when my CEO and head of sales had a lot of thoughts and they were not positive. After I recovered, my friend Dan Greene came up with the five stages of accepting negative feedback. That night? When I was so upset I couldn’t sleep? I was in Stage No. 2: Anger.

1. Denial

When you test a new product and the feedback isn’t good, our first response is to say that this customer isn’t part of the target audience, the sample size is too small or the methodology for collecting feedback is flawed. You may try and quote Steve Jobs or Henry Ford but  you are neither of these people. You may want to keep looking for answers you like better, but they won’t come and you will have lost precious time and money. If you use the phrase “not a typical user or customer,” you are well within this stage.

2. Anger

WTF! Why don’t they get how awesome this is? How could they not appreciate it? I’ve been making prototypes and products for years and I still get upset or annoyed sometimes when it doesn’t go well. This anger is not helping and we need to let it pass.

3. Consideration

There is a magic moment when you have enough emotional distance that you can say, “Well, maybe.” Well, maybe no one wants that feature. Well, maybe that architecture won’t scale. You go through all the data you have looking for trends. Not all feedback should be acted on. There are always wacky outliers. You begin to loosen your grip on what you think the product must be and begin to see what the customer may want.

4. Panic

This is the moment when you say, “Crap, what do we do now?”

A customer will always see things differently than we do. That’s why we test and listen.
When you try not to think about how you missed this and how many hours of work are in the toilet (hopefully, it’s just hours and not more). You could also experience some shame: If we were smarter, better, we could have prevented this  except you can’t. A customer will always see things differently than we do. That’s why we test and listen. Resist the urge to go back to the drawing board. This compounds the panic. You can likely incorporate the feedback incrementally. The good news is that this is the shortest stage and what follows is …

5. Excitement

Learning is a powerful thing. When you feel like you understand your customer, your product or your team better, it fires you up to come up with the next thing and to push through all of the disappointment.
The excitement for me came when we came up with a whole new approach and starting testing it. We kept tweaking as we talked to five people and then 10. When we got to 15 people, it was good and the CEO and head of sales agreed. Three countries later, we’re ready to roll this out to all 750 employees at my company, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the feedback that hurt a few days before.


Accepting negative feedback is about more than improving the products we made, it’s about growing our careers. We need to hear often and clearly what we are doing well, what needs to be improved, what skills or experience we’re missing but more often than not, managers are afraid to do this, especially when talking to women.
“When giving critical feedback to women, male managers may be especially worried about how the feedback will be received,” Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research wrote in an article on the Harvard Business Review. “This ‘protective hesitation’ — the failure to give feedback due to worry that the recipient might be upset — is a critical barrier in having conversations necessary to advance women’s careers.”
We need to invite feedback every day from small things like how we handled a meeting to big things like asking what we need to do to get to the next level of your career. We need to ask for hard feedback. We need to take the short-term risk of hurt feelings for the longterm reward of growth.
Go get the feedback to make a better product, get the feedback to grow your career. Don’t be afraid. If anything bad happens, you’ll be through it in five stages.


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