How to deal with criticism constructively

Receiving negative feedback can be nerve-racking, but the way people respond to critical situations is often what separates the winners from the losers.

We’ve all been there. You’re seated across from your boss, co-founder, or mentor. Your stomach tightens as they tell you what about your work needs improvement, and why.

Sometimes, it feels like you’re being attacked, or that they view you as inadequate.

For many of us, our first impulse is to tuck our tails between our legs, leave the room, and actively avoid these kinds of situations in the future.

But this is a mistake.

Receiving negative feedback can be nerve-racking, no doubt, but the way people respond to critical situations is often what separates the winners from the losers.

For most of us, we tend to have two types of reactions to negative feedback:

Too Stubborn. You become defensive and resistant, and as a result have difficulty internalizing the feedback to improve. This discourages honest feedback in the future, which can lead to stagnation.

Too Open. You are so openly receptive to whatever sort of feedback you hear, that you try implementing all of it blindly. This confuses your ability to weigh or prioritize what feedback is worth taking, and what isn’t.
But neither of these means of responding to negative feedback works to your advantage. In order to become the best version of yourself possible, you must be able to listen to criticism with a level head, and distill which bits of it are most important (and which are probably not). There’s no room for too much hard-headedness or too little backbone.

For startup founders, you just really need to find the sweet spot between the two extremes. You just have to do it.

Founders, especially, receive tons of advice — both critical and otherwise. If you’re unreceptive to it, you’ll cling too long to failed ideas and bad habits. If you’re too open to it, and try implementing every piece of criticism you receive, you’ll end up making changes that don’t make sense or aren’t actually valuable.

It’s an important and subtle skill — a kind of balancing act of awareness, honesty, and distillation — that all founders and people, in general, have to master.

Here’s how:

1. Weigh criticism based on its “believability index”

Not all feedback is created equal. One way to distill the unhelpful feedback from the useful is to consider who is giving it, how experienced they are in the world you’re attempting to impact, and how “believable” they are.

For example, a doctor who knows nothing about finance would not score high on your believability index if you’re in the market for advice on stocks. (This is something Ray Dalio discusses in Principles.)

It’s also important to consider what a person’s underlying motivations might be for giving you feedback. Those with more “skin in the game” will have an inherently higher believability score because you know they’re invested in your success.

2. Learn to prioritize only what’s actionable

There are certain changes or adjustments to your product or business that you just won’t be able to make. The first step in determining which pieces of feedback to internalize and implement is identifying what is and isn’t actionable.

Maybe your product is built on top of something else (for example, a Facebook Instant game built on top of Messenger). If you receive feedback pertaining to the hard constraints of that more foundational component, it’s likely you won’t have the resources to address it, as it would entail systemic changes.

Most of the time, that’s okay. Know you can’t fix every problem, at least not all at once.

After receiving feedback, hold prioritization meetings with your team to determine how many resources each adjustment might require. Weed out what’s actionable and what’s not, and prioritize what changes are most impactful to make right now.

3. Don’t play it too safe; it’s okay to make wrong decisions as long as you learn from them

When you’re building or rolling out something new, remember that a big mistake many people make is allowing the mere possibility of receiving critical feedback to keep them from taking creative risks.

That lowers the potential greatness of whatever you’re building, as greatness is inextricably tied to risk.

Taking risks — and making incorrect decisions as a result — is okay and manageable, as long as you learn from those mistakes and use them to improve your product in its next iteration.

It’s important that when taking risks you figure out a way to fail fast or speed up the iteration/feedback cycle. When experimenting, the number of shots on goal matters.

In fact, this process of taking chances and fixing what doesn’t ultimately work is a necessary component of building a great company. It’s a matter of approaching the work scientifically.

Throughout it all, realize that nothing you do will ever make everyone happy.

Avatar, for example, is the top-grossing movie of all time — yet it boasts only an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 7.5/10 user score on MetaCritic.

Game of War, which for a long time was the #1 top-grossing iOS game of all time, has over 20,000 one-star reviews on the App Store (that’s almost 1 in 5 of its reviews).

This is an important point to remember. Especially when your products are more creative, some amount of critical feedback is inevitable — no matter how successful your products end up being.

It’s impossible to please everyone. If you try, you’ll delight no one, and end up with something that’s banal and average.

At the end of the day, you have to recognize that receiving critical feedback is simply a part of building a company, and more generally, of doing difficult work.

Those who end up succeeding in their industry don’t do so because they somehow avoided ever making mistakes or producing projects that had flaws, nor did they build something that everyone loved off the bat. Rather, those who succeed possess an ability to separate useful, actionable feedback from the noise that doesn’t ultimately matter.

This article was originally published on Quora.