The 4-A Approach© for Processing Negative Feedback

Performance feedback is an essential component for growth.

We all know that. But there’s a big difference between knowing that intellectually and accepting it when it comes your way.

None of us wants to hear we didn’t meet expectations or that we have a gap in our competencies that’s undermining our performance, creating interpersonal upheaval, or holding us back from promotion.

Yet it happens. There it is. That line in your review or the pause your boss takes during a performance discussion that tells you it’s coming. You can do better. We expect something more from you.


It’s human nature to initially defend and deflect. We tend to want to explain why a gap exists. It’s a self-defense tactic to protect ourselves from a perceived harm: Stave off the downgraded performance rating, avoid being passed over for promotion, prevent removal from a top talent list, or whatever that downside might be.

It’s important to move beyond that initial reaction as quickly as possible so that you’re not stuck in resistance … so that you can actually hear and do something about whatever it is that isn’t working.

To that end, here’s a model that can be helpful in processing the feedback and leveraging it for your development. I call it the The 4-A Approach ©


  • ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – Assuming the feedback is coming from a trusted, objective source with good intentions, then your first step is to acknowledge that there is some basis in reality for this assessment. Notice your gut reaction to defend and explain, intentionally set that aside (you can fester on it later, but I wouldn’t advise that), and focus on understanding more about what your boss and colleagues observe you doing that’s ineffective. You’re on the right path if you arrive close to the mindset of: “There’s something here for me to understand … to be aware of … I need to hear and consider this.”


  • ACCEPTANCE – You might not like it, see it, or agree with it. You might even have a seemingly plausible reason for the action you took. But the fact remains that a negative consequence has surfaced from your performance. “It might not be my reality, but it is their reality. If I’m being responsible, then I need to accept the impact of my actions.”


  • ACCOUNTABILITY – To leverage this feedback for real, sustained development, your ownership is required. This is where you move from this issue being their reality, to this issue being your reality. This is not lip service. It’s your true mindset. “I’m committed to making the necessary adjustments in order to be an effective leader.”


  • ACTION – And here’s the linchpin. The above three steps are constructive for internalizing the feedback, yet without any action, without any observable outward attempts on your part to course-correct, all that reflection and consideration won’t mean much. You have to move it into action. Work with your manager, HR partner, or a coach to identify the actions you’ll take to address the gap and to gather meaningful feedback on your progress. Keep the lines of communication open with your boss and HR to ensure you demonstrate that you heard the message and are actively working to grow and develop from the experience.


Critical feedback can be a powerful tool for leadership development when it’s well-delivered, fully-received, and then genuinely acted upon. Viewing it as an ally for your performance rather than an enemy can be the difference between growth and stagnation. Choose wisely!


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