Interviewing

Turn Negative Interview Feedback into Positive Results

positive interview

No one likes negative feedback, and when it comes from a prospective employer it can really sting. Most job seekers will take anything less than ‘you’ve got the job,’ as criticism of their value.

“We tend to hear it as: You’re not good enough—or you are good enough,’” says Doug Stone, co-author, with Sheila Heen, of Thanks for the Feedback. (The authors also co-founded Triad Consulting, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., and are lecturers at Harvard Law School.)

But if you can look at feedback as a form of coaching, not criticism, it can help you make the changes needed to increase your odds of getting the next job. You may even change your interviewer’s mind. “There is advice embedded in the evaluation,” says Stone. “If you really fight hard to hear the feedback through the lens of coaching, someone’s opinion will be more valuable to you.”

Of course, most of us find it hard to be coolly objective when someone tells us we’re getting turned down for a job we really want, even if we know we don’t have the specific experience a company desires. “We can feel depressed or hopeless or like it’s unfair,” says Stone.

But if you review the feedback a few days later, when you have some distance from the emotions, you may find some valuable advice to act on. Let’s say a hiring manager tells you that you didn’t get the job because you lack the right skills. “Instead of thinking, `They don’t want me,’ you could work on developing those skills,” says Stone.

If the less-than-positive comments come during an interview, your response can turn things around. The more constructively you can accept feedback, the more attractive you will be to hiring managers who want to know how you’ll respond to an on-the-job critique. Don’t just listen or shut down, but ask them to elaborate, Stone advises. “It shows you can be very engaged with the feedback,” he says.

How to Handle Negative Interview Feedback

You don’t have to agree with feedback you think is unfair just to be polite. If, for example, a hiring manager says you took a lot of easier courses to earn your M.B.A. and might not have a genuine interest in business, you can counter their statement. “A firm response would be a good thing,” says Stone. You might reply that many of the courses were very challenging, and elaborate on why you took them and where your interest in business comes from,” says Stone: “You’re not being hostile or disagreeable but you’re firmly sticking up for yourself.”

Similarly, if someone makes a comment that seems to underestimate your abilities or qualifications, you might say point blank, “I think I’m sometimes underestimated,” and then explain why you’re very capable of doing the job.

Of course, if you agree with the feedback, accepting it calmly is never a bad thing. Say thank you, and then add: “I’m always trying to get better.” Responding with grace will stand you in good stead with any interviewer, says Stone.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.