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What to Do When Feedback Feels Abusive


Fri Feb 24 2023

What to Do When Feedback Feels Abusive

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When you hold someone accountable, you are giving them uncomfortable feedback about their behavior, which can be a challenge. You are showing them that what they said, did, or didn’t do isn’t acceptable. How do we make this uncomfortable feedback easier to give and receive?

Several years ago, Crucial Learning did a study about how people respond to feedback—especially harsh criticism. We received stories from 455 people who had been told things like:

  • “Think about leaving. I need warriors not wimps.”

  • “You know—you are kind of whiny.”

  • “You look great on a resume but not so great on the job.”

Some may see these statements as examples of bullying. And yet, while 90 percent said they felt shocked or stunned to receive such feedback, only 15 percent reacted with feelings of anger or resentment. The most common responses were either silence or forced politeness.

But we didn’t stop there. We wondered whether people would welcome feedback if it were delivered in a more careful and compassionate way. If someone said, “You seem to be more concerned with your own results than the results of the team” rather than “You are selfish,” would the recipient be grateful and more accepting?

What we found is that no matter how well the feedback was delivered, it still left a painful and lasting impression. It was still hard to hear.

There is no room for bullying in the workplace—or any place for that matter. But just because feedback can sting, doesn’t mean it’s a form of bullying. Any time we hold another accountable, no matter how we do it, they are likely to bristle to some degree. And while we teach how to speak with candor and respect, it’s also important to develop skills for receiving feedback or being the recipient of what we at Crucial Learning call a crucial conversation.

What makes feedback so difficult to receive, and how can we accept it more effectively?


Own Your Safety

Safety is one of two essential psychological needs. Whenever we believe it’s threatened, our brains react by choosing fight, flight, or freeze. When someone is holding us accountable, we are completely safe. It is our pride that’s at risk, not our safety.

In the case of physical danger, we take responsibility for our safety. And yet, when it comes to psychological safety, we often assume others are responsible for it. If this is our position, the default reaction to feedback is to take offense. Instead, remember Ghandi’s guidance: “Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”

Ultimately, the motives of others is irrelevant. Even if someone delivers feedback in an unfeeling or overly harsh manner, you can still take responsibility for your psychological safety.

Own Your Worth

Our other essential psychological need is a sense of self-worth. Too often we derive our worth from external sources—jobs, salary, social standing, or material possessions. When someone reveals our shortcomings through uncomfortable feedback, externally-based self-worth crumbles.

Instead, develop a sense of self-worth based on self-respect. One way to improve self-respect is to develop values and live by them. If you live by a set of mores, your sense of self-worth is untouched by uncomfortable feedback.


Holding people accountable is challenging; it’s the act of conveying something they may not want to hear. No matter how kindly it’s done, it may hurt.

Instead of demanding perfection from the messenger, let’s take more responsibility as receivers. Encourage employees to be open to hearing hard truths, even when they aren’t perfectly packaged.

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