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I recently had an interview where I was asked "how did you respond to harsh feedback from your boss?"

Problem is, I have never received negative feedback from a manager so I did not know what to say. I'm 5 years into my career as a developer and not once has any boss had a negative thing to say to me. I've learned to manage up.

In my family, whether my parents liked me was a function of my successes minus my failures, so since I was about 10 I have learned to be a people pleaser who has a laser focus on the objectives of whoever has power over me. I am also very good at hiding problems until they could be corrected.

It means I don't commit to anything I am not 100% sure I can do. However, as most needs can be anticipated, I can go figure out how to do it beforehand and when the boss asks, commit to it. The business analyst is also quite happy to give me a preview of what needs to be done in the upcoming sprint.

It also means that I build in time to react to unknowns. I have managed to be ahead of each sprint by about half a sprint (by discussing with the business analyst beforehand to ensure I am assigned certain stuff and using spare time for that and just not reporting it) just in case a task is sized improperly. I hope to always go into a sprint having at least one task done already.

I also pre-vet everything. If I am the one up for presenting stuff in the sprint review, I have a meeting with the project owner and the business analyst beforehand for my components. They always pass the public meeting as they were already signed off on by the person who does that.

It hasn't happened in this job, but there was one case where I was behind as a sprint was ending. I just booked meetings through stand up for two days so I did not need to report and worked late to finish it.

This isn't meant as a humble brag. I fail at things. I just make sure to do it in such a way that my boss never learns about it. Failures may happen in virtual machines. Anyone not me can see it if it is a success.

If I have an idea which might fail or be interpreted as silly, I do it with a different executive or different department and don't let my boss know I am meeting with that person/group.

Same with speaking opportunities, external awards, conferences, etc. I funnel those through other managers. My boss might know on my LinkedIn if I won and otherwise, I read a book that weekend.

I couldn't come up with a good answer for the question because such an outcome would indicate a massive failure on my part. I think I would quit a job where I got any since that would mean I screwed up badly and I don't think that is a good answer. I also don't think explaining that I build information silos and pre-empt meetings with pre-meetings is a good answer.

I was told by the recruiter that they might try this question again. What should be my answer?

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I couldn't come up with a good answer for the question because such an outcome would indicate a massive failure on my part. I think I would quit a job where I got any since that would mean I screwed up badly

This is exactly why they ask the question.

To filter out people who won't take negative feedback well or use it constructively (even if harsh). Negative feedback is an opportunity to course correct, to learn, to grow. You should use it to improve.

That's indeed the entire point - what the giver of the feedback wants. If you'd screwed up so badly that there's no reasonable way to continue, they'd be firing you, not giving you feedback.

Giving up and quitting at the first encounter with negative feedback is absolutely counter productive, for everyone. To be straightforward, the reason you've never received it definitely isn't because no manager has had any negative things to say about you. It's that they haven't been doing their jobs properly and haven't told you those things. This has done you a major disservice.

Please take this constructively, it's intended as such. I encourage you to reflect deeply on this, rethink how you'd approach receiving critical feedback in future in a way that benefits you and the feedback giver, and then use those thoughts as the answer to a question like this. Don't lie and invent some scenario to demonstrate your points (this will be really transparent), just talk about what you would do.

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Use every opportunity to show your strength.

They are not really bothered about whether you actually faced that scenario or not, they want to know your mindset on how you will handle when that scenario happens. If a day comes when you have to face / handle that scenario - what would be your mindset, thought process, strategy and mental strength to counter / address that case? Maybe they want to know the following points:

  • Are you open to accepting constructive criticism?
  • How do you react when you receive a negative feedback when you are wrong?
  • How do you react when you receive a negative feedback when you were actually right?
  • How do you handle feedback in general? What is your follow up process?
  • Are you a good decision maker?

    etc etc.

So, when you are asked:

"how did you respond to harsh feedback from your boss?"

use that to show your strong points. You can say something like:

  • I have received multiple feedback from my seniors, some are positive and some are negative. I have taken the positives as appreciation and accepted the negatives as improvement points, worked on the improvements and made them better.
  • Regarding the "harsh" part, I try my best to keep the delivery / tone of the feedback separate from the message. I can understand, many times the negative feedback originates because / comes with some sort of disappointment and at times, that can affect the delivery of the feedback. As long as that delivery does not cross the common courtesy and acceptable professional behavior - I focus on the actual feedback points.
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Okay, this isn't going to be an answer to the question you're directly asking; this is going to address the core issue here: You need to learn to fail.

I'm not sure whether you're willing to take any of this on board, but this isn't an issue of "What do I tell the recruiter?" It's an issue of needing to learn how to fail and how to fail in a positive way - because right now, you've got a critical cognitive weakness and it's putting you way behind the ball in this facet of your career.

I fail all the time. I brainstorm with my coworkers and boss about a new way we could try to tackle incoming emails. We try it out, but it doesn't end up working. I tell my boss I'll shoot for getting the additional documentation in place by the end of the week. It takes me until Tuesday the following. I offer to take a look at another area's codebase and web logs to see if I can help them diagnose a problem they're having. My efforts don't find the problem.

But here's the thing: I'd be willing to bet that I succeed a lot more than you. You wouldn't bring up tackling the incoming emails unless you were sure it would work - which often means you won't try something. You won't commit to any remotely ambitious deadline, because, hey, it might mean missing the goal. You won't offer to help out with troubleshooting if you can't be reasonably certain of your success.

I'm not valuable to my employer because I never fail. I'm valuable because I succeed. And I succeed more than you, because I'm willing to give it my best on things that I don't have a 100% chance of success on - because I'm willing to risk failing and you aren't.

Right now, you're going through enormous hoops to try to avoid the smallest appearance of failure. You 'funnel' potentially non-success tasks through other management so your boss won't see. You don't let anyone know about conferences/speeches/etc until afterwards just in case you mess up. You won't commit to anything unless you're 100% sure you can do it.

You need to learn that the fear of failure is stopping you from success. And you need to learn how to fail correctly.

I'd highly suggest reading this article. Or this one.

Some notable quotes:

Most people will never achieve truly extraordinary results. They will continue to produce average, mediocre work, and they will never take off. Why? Because they’re too scared to fail.

... and ...

Highly successful people are the ones who have failed the most.

... and ...

This way of thinking has made the world afraid of failure. Even from a young age we have been taught that being wrong and making mistakes are bad. Our mind itself uses painful memories of the past to provoke negative emotions like fear and anxiety to stop us from making those same errors today.

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The interview question you're asking about is a behavioral question. The ultimate goal of such questions is to assess whether you are an authentic and reasonable person to work with. These questions can be difficult, but your answer has to be true and from your own work experience.

Your answer might not be an impressive answer or you might draw a blank but there are other questions in the interview. It's OK to blow one or two questions. They just want evidence that you're capable of introspection and working well with others.

These questions are hard because it's impossible for everyone to index all their work experiences into tight little vignettes that perfectly and compactly answer a behavioral question.

In a behavioral interview you can usually answer a related/similar question if the exact question you're asked doesn't apply to you, just say so up front. Keep in mind that interviewers may ask follow-up questions. That's the nature of behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewers will regard inauthenticity as the worst possible red-flag. Being inauthentic is much worse than punting on a couple of questions because nothing comes to mind.

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What you have written here could easily be reworked into an answer that doesn't come off as being a bragger and also someone who is isn't devious. You can get away with some bragging if you follow up with a minor negative. So sure say you rarely get negative feedback because you were poorly raised as a people pleaser by your parents. That statement is bragging but with a plausible minor negative thrown in to balance it out

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