Disagree with feedback you received? Here’s what to do

“That feedback is completely unfair.”

“My peer’s review of me couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Have you ever thought — or said — something like this during a meeting with your manager?

I have, and I’m betting you have, too.  

Nearly every one of us has experienced feeling misunderstood at work. 

We generally only show a portion of who we truly are in our “work selves.”  Even in the most casual work environments, we hold parts of ourselves back, wanting to assimilate to team norms and cultural mores.

Constant time crunches also mean we don’t always have the time to perfectly construe our thoughts, increasing the likelihood of being misunderstood.  Deadlines also increase stress levels and the likelihood of communication shortcuts.

Finally, differing communication styles and even facial expressions are factors in how well we’re understood at work.  Communication style can impact performance outcomes according to one study from the University of Amsterdam.  Even just simply tilting your head downward is associated with dominance, according to another study from the University of British Columbia

It’s amazing we get any message across clearly at work. 

It’s amazing we’re not perpetually misunderstood!  


I’ll share one of my own stories with you.

During one of my bi-annual reviews as an Executive at Amazon, I sat with my manager to look through all of the feedback she pulled together for me.  At the time, the process was quite thorough, transparent, and 360 degrees.  I got to hear not only from my manager, but also my peers and the people who reported to me.

It had been an amazing, challenging year, and I had put my all into it.  I loved my manager and my team, and they loved me back.  I was thriving.  The review reflected that, with one quote’s exception from an unnamed Peer:

I enjoy working with Mariel.  She’s a great team player as well as a fantastic leader.  I am concerned about her grip on retail math at times, though.  For example, we were in a meeting recently and she kept getting confused about the difference between [one metric] and [another metric].  I kept talking about [one metric] and she kept pulling me back to [the other metric] no matter how much I tried to bring it back to [the first metric].  Maybe she should take a remedial math course or something?


I was absolutely dumbstruck.  I stopped reading and looked up at my manager with my mouth dropped open.


I swung quickly into defense mode.  I began listing my math-based accomplishments to show my manager that my Peer is SO SO WRONG.

  • “Well, I worked on Wall Street, that should count, doesn’t it?!”
  • “I went to Business School!”  (Ignore all the vacations and trips we all took during those two years)
  • “I manage a  $500M P&L… I know my math.”
  • “I can explain the difference between those two metrics in my sleep, want me to do it right now?!”

After that last one, my manager stopped me in my tracks.  She was being gracious; she should have stopped me before I even started this list.

The truth is, while my defensiveness was understandable — and you may have felt it too at times — it’s the wrong way to approach being misunderstood at work.  These are the moments to pause and reflect internally, not recoil.  Why?  Because…

Perception IS reality.

You may be a prize-winning mathematician, but if your new coworkers have a perception that your conclusions are sometimes presented without data, you won’t have a lot of support at work.  It’s not that you are suddenly bad with data (which may be the first thing you jump to defend, with incredulity); it’s that you didn’t take the time to communicate your data sufficiently clearly.

See the difference? It can be a career make-or-break.

I am good at math — and I WAS misunderstood by my peer.  But perception is reality.

In the meeting my peer was referencing, I was in a rush, and I didn’t take the time to explain to him that I wanted to use [the second metric] because it took depreciation into account, whereas [the first metric] did not.  Instead of explaining it, I just kept pulling him toward [the second metric] and ignoring him every time he’d correct me and say [the first metric].

Here were our two perspectives during this meeting: mine, mildly annoyed my peer keeps saying [the first metric], feeling rushed, perhaps smugly thinking how good it is I caught the depreciation detail.  His perspective: likely baffled at how I got my position in the company, thinking I’m in need of remedial math.

And here’s the worst part:

Because my peer misunderstood me and thought I struggled with metrics, I likely wasn’t receiving the support and/or partnership I needed.   

Going through my list of “math-based accomplishments” didn’t change this fact.  It also didn’t change my peer’s perception.  That’s why a defensive approach doesn’t work.

What will change perceptions and improve partnerships? 

Going back and reexamining how you might be perceived.

Here are some questions you might ask to help:

  • What about my communication, or work style, could have caused this perception?
  • Is there a better way to communicate with this person or about this topic going forward?
  • Is there something I’m doing unconsciously that’s contributing to this perception?

Ultimately, I had a discussion with this peer.  I apologized for skipping my thought process and not bringing him along for the ride.  For the rest of my tenure in that role, he remained one of my closest allies and friends.

I have seen this exact scenario go differently, with the recipient of the feedback icing out the feedback giver.  This is an unfortunate missed opportunity.  While the feedback itself may not be actionable — e.g. a remedial math course wouldn’t have actually made sense for me — there is still plenty to be learned from it.  Be grateful for the lessons on communication style, collaboration, facial affect, presence, leadership style, or a combination of all. 

Next time you find yourself going into defense mode at work, stop.  Reflect.

Perception IS reality. 

Need more 1:1 guidance? Click here to schedule some time with me — I’d love to chat and help you love what you do.

Haven Coaching