How do I distinguish between constructive feedback that I can use to grow vs. unwarranted “negative” feedback that I should not care about?

Hi Brooke,

My name is Yvonne and I work in the field of international development doing research and evaluation of projects. I manage research studies from start to finish and contribute significantly to research reports, often as one of the main authors. I have been doing this for about 9 years now and have always received great feedback on the quality of my work. I have heard from colleagues and supervisors that they see me as an asset to the organization and that they have come to rely heavily on me because of the work I do.

Currently, I work on a very big project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and this past year, one very senior person at USAID has been reviewing the research reports we produce and been quite critical of our work, questioning our research methodology and indicating that he thinks the quality of the writing is low. It has happened several times this past year and I have always taken it in stride, worked on responding to the feedback, on re-running analyses, and re-writing the report to be responsive to his comments.

Yesterday we received his comments on another report, which he sent directly to our department director in a private email. His email indicated that “the evaluation methodology and writing issues persist” and contained our report with his extensive edits and comments. When I read client feedback, I usually try to maintain a certain level of objectivity and try to determine whether comments relate to editing issues or methodological issues and take them as an opportunity to make our end product better. This time however was different.

When I read the edits and comments, my thought was that he had issues with my writing specifically (there is one section of the report that was written by someone else and he made a comment saying specifically that “the prose in Section B is good”) and that no matter how much I work on it, I simply could not write in a way that would please him. All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind such as: English is not my native language (although I did go to college in the US)/it is a style issue/perhaps it is a grammar issue/I am a bad writer/the quality of my work is low/he and I think differently and therefore write differently and my style of writing is not a good fit for the way he thinks/ etc, etc. There were both negative thoughts about myself and about my work, as well as other thoughts that questioned him as a reviewer.

Immediately, I turned to your model and did the work, but my mind was still confused and I felt like a wreck. It is one thing to get feedback on your work that you can address and build from, but when you repeatedly get comments saying that the work is of “low quality”, it starts to make you wonder if in fact the work that you produce IS of low quality. Despite the fact that I know (in my rational mind) that it is not because this is the first time in 9 years it’s happened to this extent! And because I also know that this particular man has a history of being difficult to please (he came into the picture about 1.5 year ago and ever since has been critical of the work that the entire project does).

This morning, I listened to your recent podcast about other people’s opinions and why you should not care about them. And at one point in the podcast you say “but what about constructive feedback?” and that’s my question to you. I know in my heart of hearts that I am a good worker, that I produce work that others generally would consider of “high quality”. But when I get such “negative” comments on a regular basis, from a client who matters to my organization, how do I distinguish between feedback that is useful, vs feedback that I should simply discard from my mind?

I wrote to my colleagues yesterday saying that perhaps someone else should be the main author of our reports moving forward. Part of me thinks that I am giving up, and that I am not brave enough to work through this, while the other part of me thinks that I am showing my vulnerability and that if despite my best efforts I cannot write in a way that will make this client happy, why should I continue wasting my energy into trying?

At my organization, we are currently working on our yearly performance reviews. So all of this past year’s client feedback has been difficult for me to process. I don’t know how to rate myself.

Thanks for any guidance you can provide.