Feedback that Feels like a Personal Attack

Here’s how to spot when feedback is a personal attack and when it isn’t – and what you can do about it

People often tell me that they do not like receiving negative, or even constructive, feedback.

I have discussed how this type of feedback makes our emotional brain (the limbic system) feel attacked in the following articles:

  1. Worried about giving feedback to a report?
  2. What perfect feedback looks like
  3. How to receive negative feedback?
    The Alternative to the S**T Sandwich, this Time in Writing
  4. How to respond to negative feedback?
  5. Feeling Embarrassed when Receiving Positive Feedback?

In this article I would like to explore the difference between a personal attack and genuine feedback which helps you improve.

Sometimes we just can’t tell the difference between the two, and I would like to give you some tips which help you do better, rather than just feeling attacked. I will also explore how conflict-avoidant behaviour can actually contribute to feedback feeling like a personal attack, when it’s often simply a lack of skills and ability to deal with conflict.

Real Example 1: Personal attack: “It’s not what we want at all!”

You are preparing for a meeting with stakeholders and your line manager is part of this meeting too. You and your manager are convening before the meeting to discuss the presentation you are planning to deliver. In response to the draft slides you show him, he says “This is not what we want at all.” You are surprised at his bluntness but you compose yourself and you say “What can I do to improve?” He then says “I’ll do them!” and then presents your slides (changed slightly) at the stakeholder meeting.
What just happened?
This case study demonstrates a clear lack of rapport (and support) between the line manager and the employee. No one should ever give such unhelpful feedback as “This is not what we want at all.” This kind of feedback is demotivating and adds no value to the person receiving it. It shows no consideration from the manager about how their comments might make the person hearing them feel. It can feel like a personal attack, and with good reason.
What can you do in this situation?
In this sort of situation, the relationship between employee and line manager can be fraught with challenges.
I always believe in open and honest communication, so the first thing I would do would be to arrange a chat with the manager on a separate day from this incident (to allow the emotional brain to calm down). Explain to them that you would like to learn how you could have done the slides better, and that you want some feedback about the gap between the presentation you had prepared and the presentation they expected. I suggest you email them the following questions and say these are the sorts of things you’d like to discuss.
Use a calm tone, one of curiosity and willingness to learn, rather than one of “Justify your actions.” Considering this specific case study, you could say something like:

“I wanted to discuss our meeting last week and learn from that experience. I feel I didn’t perform to your standards and I would like to know how I could have done better. In order to do this, I would like to understand a few things.”

Discuss these sorts of points/questions one by one:
“What made you say you would do the slides? What was it about the slides that made you take them and work on them yourself? What would the slides have looked like for you not to have to do them yourself? What aspect of the slides was the worst? What were the good things about them? How would you expect the slides to be when comparing them to how they were?”
Keep the conversation factual. Observe their reaction to your genuine tone and willingness to learn. Communication is not just what you say, but also the way you say it. My mum is a chemical engineer with lots of emotional intelligence, and she would always say “The tone makes the music.”
If the manager does not stick to the facts and starts saying things like “You are always difficult to work with,” or some other personal comment, then it is a personal attack and your attention should turn not to the work, but rather to the relationship between you before you can do any work together.
One other thing you could try is to understand the manager a bit more: what could be the driver and motivation behind their behaviour? Is it that they behave like this because of a perceived threat, or is it that they are simply unaware of the impact of their communication?

Real Example 2: Giving feedback to “prickly” people

You manage a team of five people and now your line manager says that they have decided to change the line management structure; from now on you are no longer managing anyone.
You start asking more and more questions about this … and the manager finally says:

“Your interpersonal skills are so poor (you are prickly!) that they could not be managed by training. We decided that you should not be line managing people. This has been going on for months and everyone knows in the management team/HR. We’ve been thinking really hard for months about what we can do about it and it’s the best solution we could come up with.”

This was the first you heard of it.

It all seems to have come out of the blue. You feel almost paranoid, and your trust is eroded as you feel they went behind your back … everyone knew except you! You feel humiliated, isolated, emotionally bruised and now might wonder what else people might be hiding from you.
Moreover, you recently had your annual review, and none of this came up during that feedback. You are upset because your manager didn’t have these conversations with you and did not tell you the truth from the beginning.
In the review, your manager said: “You and I have a good relationship and we can have these grown-up conversations.” Yet he didn’t tell you what was going on until you pushed harder. You have now lost trust in your line manager.
You would have preferred regular conversations with your line manager, with them saying to you: “I have had this feedback; this is what they need; this is what you can do about it.” But your manager didn’t do this; he gave you a business reason why your line management responsibilities were taken away from you.
You probably feel that not much effort has been made to rebuild trust. You would have liked your line manager to apologise for the way this was done and to acknowledge why they were not honest with you from the beginning.
What just happened?
This is the most common story I hear from people who ultimately find out why their job was changed and/or receive negative/constructive feedback. Why does this happen? Why do managers not provide timely feedback?
It’s because many people are conflict avoidant! They don’t want to face the uncomfortable situation of telling a member of staff that they are not performing or that they are “prickly”.
Imagine this – you have a member of staff who seems like they would react with negative emotions if you tell them they are not a team player or are “prickly” – most people are terrified and don’t have the experience to deal with emotional outbursts, especially at work.
All of the above is the sign of a conflict-avoidant manager. Unfortunately, people who deal with issues in this way only make matters worse for all sides.
Firstly, because it gets worse for the rest of the team as problems only exacerbate and become worse over time when not addressed. This usually results in lower motivation in everyone in the team (including the “prickly” person) and a sense of “Nothing is being done about the prickly person” from the team. This means that in return the team will not give the manager of the team (and of the “prickly” person) genuine feedback about what is going on because they feel “Nothing will be done anyway”.
Secondly, the “prickly” person themselves often senses there’s something wrong, but they can’t quite place what, and they feel hurt and upset when they finally find out what is going on. Because of the way our limbic system (the emotional part of the brain) works, once they find out everyone else knew, or that their manager hid this for months and spoke to everyone else about it but them, they feel paranoid and hurt, and trust is lost. The need to be accepted by the tribe is crucial to our limbic system, and the moment we find out the tribe “conspired against us”, we feel threatened and lose trust. Trust is extremely hard to re-build once something like this has happened.
To clarify – this kind of feedback may sound like a personal attack, but it’s actually simply to do with conflict avoidance and communication skills.

What can you do about it?
If you are the “prickly” person – firstly, acknowledge what is happening: it is possibly making you feel paranoid, or isolated, and that maybe it has made you lose trust in your manager and people close to you in the team. Look back at what happened and write down what was it that they did (actions they took) that made you feel this way. After this, see if you can find it in your heart to look at the situation from your manager’s (and colleagues’) perspective, and understand that the reason they acted this way was most likely because of fear. They were afraid of your reaction and that’s why they tried to “soften the blow” by inventing a reason that appears removed from you to enact the change they felt needed to happen. I have spoken in confidence with many managers in these types of situations, and I always advise them to speak honestly with colleagues about what is going on. However, they almost always prefer to find another reason because it is “easier” as they are worried about the person’s reaction.
The other thing you can do now that this has happened is to show your manager and colleagues that you are open to learning and want them to feel safe to be honest with you next time. You don’t want them to worry about your reaction. Go to your manager and colleagues and say: “I am really sorry to realise that you felt unable to speak to me and tell me your honest feedback about how I came across. I am genuinely trying to learn from this experience, as I don’t want to come across as prickly and I would like to understand what I could have done to make you feel safe to tell me your true feelings about my behaviour. I am not going to lie, it hurt that you didn’t feel able to come forward and speak to me directly about it, but I now understand why, because you were probably worried about my reaction and wanted to avoid upsetting or demotivating me.” I promise you, if you do this, it will blow people away and make them feel very impressed with your reaction. If you are reading the advice I have just given and you think it’s them who need to apologise first, all I can say is that to show them they were wrong to speak behind your back, you should make the first step and show them they were mistaken, that, despite your prickly appearance, you are someone they could have spoken to.
If you are the manager – if you have already gone through the scenario above, you can’t turn back time … my suggestion is to go to the “prickly” member of staff and apologise. Tell them what made you worry about having the conversation and stopped you from being honest from the beginning. Tell them you feared their reaction, or that you worried about them reacting negatively or emotionally, and that you didn’t feel able to deal with it. Ask them what you could do to rebuild trust. Ask them about how it made them feel and ask how they would have preferred you to tell them the feedback? Use it as an opportunity to learn.

Final thoughts – The limbic system often makes negative or constructive feedback seem like a personal attack, even when it isn’t. Usually this happens because of the way the feedback is delivered, or simply because our self-esteem is not strong enough to cope with feedback. Feedback is a wonderful thing if it is taken for what it is – a tool for improvement and to help in understanding ourselves and our team. Whenever you feel emotional about the feedback you receive, try to acknowledge and observe (at least to yourself, even if you don’t feel able to acknowledge it or share your thoughts with the person who’s giving you the feedback) what your mind is telling you about yourself and about the person giving you the feedback. This is a story your limbic system will invent to protect your ego, as it worries that if you have been “proven wrong” it’s a “bad thing”. This is why people become so defensive when they receive feedback. This story is not true. Try to “zoom out” by looking at the facts – what could you have done better? Are you really “bad” for having made some mistakes? The limbic system likes to dramatise feedback and make it much worse than it is in reality. I found the easiest way to “zoom out” of the story my limbic system tells me in that moment is to become curious about what it was like for the other person to give me feedback. What were their worries and concerns about talking to me about it? Next time you feel attacked, become curious about the details of “what you have done wrong” and what it felt like to the person giving you the feedback. It will be much harder for the limbic system to make you feel attacked or dramatise the situation.
The truth is, the more we do it, the easier it is to both receive and give others feedback. Consider taking small steps and request feedback from your colleagues on very specific impacts where you genuinely believe their input would help you to perform even better than you are right now. Offer the same from them, and we will quickly find ourselves in a culture where we build each other up, instead of tearing each other down.

#feedback #ceo #cto #reengineeringleadership #selfawareness



Adelina Chalmers a.k.a The Geek Whisperer

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms