How To Stop Taking Things Personally at Work
Illustration by ANNA KLIEWER
How To Stop Taking Things Personally at Work
Illustration by ANNA KLIEWER
Because, actually, it’s not always about you. Here’s a practical guide to keeping your professional cool and not being crushed by feedback.

Have you ever opened an all-company email sent by your boss, asking that everyone remembers to do X? And because you personally forgot to do X that morning (but you had a good reason), you feel a crushing sense of shame, or maybe a hot rush of injustice, or anger, because in your mind that email was sent to everyone but really it was about you.

We are all the protagonist of our own narratives. Most of the time, with empathy and emotional intelligence, we are self-aware enough to recognise that the world doesn’t revolve around us. In the way we engage with family, friends, partners – even with politics or societal issues – we try hard to see things from others’ points of view. But there is something unique about the dynamics of a workplace, particularly a badly managed one, that taps into deep insecurities and makes us more likely to feel personally affected or victimised by others’ behaviour.

I recently experienced my first “360 review”, where colleagues at the agency I work for three days a week – at every level of the business, from the assistants to the CEO – anonymously provided feedback on my performance, which I then discussed with my boss. I’ve spent my career as a writer, and as such have developed an elephant-thick skin when it comes to feedback on work, but since moving from a freelance career to being a member of staff I’ve had to adjust to the idea that my behaviour, demeanour, aptitude and attitude are under scrutiny as much as the quality of my output. It would be hard not to take feedback personally when that is its very point – questions such as “what can this person do more of”, or “what can they do less of” leave little room for ambiguity. But I found the process fascinating and really useful.

Leave Your Ego At The Door

It helped that the information was delivered kindly and there was space to talk everything through. There is a necessary humbleness in hearing what others think of you, even if it doesn’t align with how you think of yourself. You have to leave your ego at the door, and I believe this is a useful exercise, particularly for people in senior roles and with years of experience. I’d like a 360 review from my family and friends too, as I truly believe it’s invaluable to reconcile your sense of self with the way others perceive you. But had I been any less secure in my worth and abilities, had I not spent the past decade learning to like and value myself, any kind of personal feedback could be crushing.

My friend Emma* realised she wasn’t cut out for a career as a designer. She told me, “I’d put hours and hours into a piece of work only to be told by my creative director she didn’t think it was good enough. I was so desperate to please her, I stopped thinking about what I believed was good and just tried to make work she would like. It meant when she still didn’t like it, I was broken. I realised I cared too much be able to receive feedback. It always felt like a personal insult."

“It was my first job and I just didn’t get how to separate myself from my work or be thick-skinned about it”

I asked Emma, who has since retained as a teacher and makes art in her spare time – for fun, not feedback – if she believes the problem was her boss’s delivery or her own lack of confidence. “A bit of both. It was my first job and I just didn’t get how to separate myself from my work or be thick-skinned about it. Looking back, I do think my creative director could have been sensitive to the way she said stuff as it felt more mean than constructive”.

The Art Of Good Communication

There are some incredible business leaders who skilfully encourage their teams to thrive and adapt their style of management to get the best out of individuals. Maybe you are this person or are lucky enough to work for them. But in my experience, people in positions of power can be as flawed, and complicated and fallible as the rest of us. They try their best to be good communicators, kind, fair, supportive, inspiring, but sometimes, let’s face it, they get it wrong.

I spoke to the CEO of a tech start-up, who said she was really struggling to home school her young son and, as she put it, “keep the lights on in the business”. She recalls snapping at one of her team who she felt wasn’t pulling her weight. “She’s a single woman with a nice house and a garden. Lockdown wasn’t difficult for her like it was for me. When she was slow in coming back to an email – I do cringe to think about it now – I messaged her basically saying that the company’s success during this pandemic was on her shoulders and I needed 110 per cent.”

Her colleague, rather than replying defensively, phoned her and shared that she had been struggling looking after an elderly relative and admitted she had dropped the ball. They had an honest conversation about their personal situations, and it gave context to the way both had behaved. “She really could have been upset with my email and taken it personally,” the CEO told me. “I’m grateful she was confident enough not to.”

When you entangle so much of your sense of self and your worth with a job it’s difficult to brush anything thing off as “just business”. I believe it is vital to care about the work you do, but I’ve also seen how caring too much can lead to paranoia, when you believe you are somehow at the centre of everything – when the fact is you’re not, and no one but you thinks you are. 

Not being physically together in an office space and only communicating via phone and email can exacerbate this paranoia, so it’s important to address it. It’s draining your energy and also, although rooted in insecurity, it’s ultimately self-centred.

"When someone’s intention could be misconstrued, when you’re given negative feedback or just 'get a vibe' that someone in the office 'doesn’t like you', then it’s time to reassess your response"

You’ll be familiar with the scenario of coming into the office late because you had a job interview and assuming, “Everyone’s staring at me! Everyone knows I’ve been for an interview! I’m in trouble! I’ve been caught out!” In reality, probably no one even noticed you weren’t at your desk at 9.30am.

Opportunities And Growth

Confidence is at the root of learning to navigate the slings and arrows of professional life. If you fill your world outside of work with people who make you feel good about yourself, who build you up and support you, if you believe you deserve to be successful, you deserve your seat at the table and you are good at what you do, then it will take more than a co-worker’s badly communicated comments to throw you off track. And you will begin to take appraisals as opportunities to learn and grow not something to dread.

Of course, there are times when you have every right to take colleague’s behaviour personally: harassment; discrimination; low-level bullying; unnecessary aggression. None of this is OK, and should be reported. But when it comes to those far more common instances, when someone’s intention could be misconstrued, when you’re given negative feedback or just “get a vibe” that someone in the office “doesn’t like you”, then it’s time to reassess your response. 

The onus is on you to take control of the way you experience your work life. Choose positivity. Choose to give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt, rather than instantly feel wounded. Particularly at this time when businesses are under immense pressure, staff are furloughed, being made redundant and most of us are having to navigate a new world of working from home. People might be more likely to fire off emails in the heat of a moment or say something when they are stressed that they would have preferred to phrase differently.

True kindness means looking at the reasons behind what you perceive as a colleague’s unkindness rather than let it hurt you. Examine their motives, their home life, how they might be feeling as humans, not job titles. Realise that people are assessing you far less than you may think, be generous in the way you understand others and you’ll soon learn how to take personal fulfilment from work without taking everything so personally.

*Name has been changed

6 Tips For Shaking It Off

1. Let It Go Most perceived slights, injustices and misunderstandings are best handled by forgetting they ever happened.

2. It’s Not Your Job To Fix Everything Sometimes meetings, long emails or really trying to thrash out an issue can make it worse.

3. Remember Everyone Makes Mistakes Don’t jump to conclusions.

4. Get To Know Your Colleagues As People It will help to give context to their behaviour.

5. This Isn’t School You have a full life filled with people who love and respect you – you don’t need to be validated by your job

6. Take Time Before Responding Write the email and save it as a draft. Nine times out of 10, the next day you’ll be glad you didn’t send it.

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