In The Trenches

Don’t take it personally

Published on December 7, 2020 Back to blog
Deep breaths.

A few years ago, a very talented employee shared some simple, yet insightful, parting advice with the team as he headed off on his next adventure: “Don’t ever take it personally.”  

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Being in the advertising business for more than 25 years, it seemed obvious. After listening to “constructive feedback” from clients, colleagues, bosses and, in some cases, the general public, you acquire a fairly thick skin. But more importantly, you eventually recognize that the feedback is almost always intended to help make the work better. It is not a personal slight on the creator/presenter/messenger. It is simply a reaction to the idea, strategy or content that is being communicated, based on a perspective that may be different from your own. It doesn’t mean that it’s always right, but it is always worth considering. 

 So, today, I thought I’d share some thoughts and advice (some may call it constructive criticism) 🙂 to help you develop this thick skin and take feedback for what it most often really is – advice from someone with a different perspective intended to improve your work product.

  1. Assume good intentions. This rule comes into play quite a bit in business (and life, in general). It’s a critical starting point. Always assume that any feedback is intended to improve the end result. It is not a personal attack on you.
  2.  Listen. It can certainly be difficult to hear negative/constructive feedback, especially after pouring your heart and soul into your work. But, remember #1 and then be sure not to tune it out. 
  3.  Don’t be distracted by tone/delivery. Some people are better than others at giving constructive feedback. And, poor tone/delivery is usually less-related to the actual work product than it is the associated stress of deadlines, anticipated boss/client reactions or other factors in the mix. It’s certainly not about you.
  4.  Talk about it. Assuming you succeed with the points above, don’t just accept feedback as gospel. It is most often one person’s opinion/perspective. If you don’t agree, have a discussion (note: discussion, not argument) about it. Be sure to clearly articulate why you believe in your approach/feedback (logically and rationally) – and let the other person do the same. 
  5.  Come to clear agreement on next steps. In the midst of constructive feedback, next steps can often be misunderstood. Be sure to clearly outline and agree upon next steps/actions so you are not having the same conversation the next time you meet. (And, if you can’t seem to agree on an approach, I suggest trying multiple options and then reconsider how to proceed.)

As someone who hates to be wrong (just ask my wife), I understand as much as anyone how difficult it can be to hear feedback that implies that to be the case. But, the reality is, no one is saying “you’re wrong.” They are simply saying, “I believe there may be a better way, and I’d like you to consider it” (although tone/delivery may not cause it to seem that way). Of course, depending on who is providing the feedback, you may eventually be forced to actually do it. But, be sure to understand why and, ultimately, recognize that it is is not about you. It’s simply about creating better work together. And, who can argue with that intention?

Jeff Freedman
CEO/Managing Partner
Small Army | Finn Partners