This Optical Illusion Will Change the Way You Take Feedback at Work

Take a look at the following image: shadow illusion

Would you believe me if I told you that Square A is the same shade as Square B?

Probably not.

If I told you that you can't trust what you see, and that indeed the squares are the same shade, would you believe me then?

Still, probably not.[bctt tweet="This #OpticalIllusion Will Change How You Take #Feedback at Work, by @theadvisory"]

If I showed you the following proof (the two parallel strips are the same uniform shade—they do not change shading as you go up or down them), would you believe me then? Maybe a bit, but more than likely, probably not. You're likely still convinced that square B is lighter than square A.

shadow illusion

Why do you believe that? "It's quite obvious, Dave" you say. "Square B is lighter than square A! What else do you need to know?" But square B isn't. Truly.

And if you still don't believe me, you can see the proof here.

And you still may not believe that.

Part of being successful in your career is knowing when you're right and when others are wrong. We all have images of the apocryphal lemmings heading off the cliff.

But there's equal value in knowing when you're wrong, especially when you don't know it.

Like the squares example above, we've all had times when the feedback we've received about ourselves or our way of interacting with others was completely wrong. We were certain of it. Like the squares above, the more we listened to or read the negative feedback, the more certain we were that the persons providing it were completely mistaken. Absolutely. Positively. No doubt about it. They were 100% wrong.

And that can be dangerous.[bctt tweet="Believing that negative #feedback is wrong can be dangerous, says @theadvisory"]

You can believe that the squares above are of different shades, and not much harm will come from it. However, if we refuse to accept feedback that contradicts our self-image, we do run the risk of, lemming-like, walking off our career cliff.

The next time you find yourself unable to accept the feedback you've just received, print out the squares illusion, cut out squares A & B, and ask yourself what you see (I had to do this before I believed it myself).

Fundamentally, it’s good to remember that being human means being wired in such a way that we don't always see what we need to see.[bctt tweet="As humans, we don't always see what we need to see, says @theadvisory #feedback"]

We all struggle at times to hear negative feedback that conflicts with our self-concept, how we see ourselves. But before you reflexively contradict the person providing that feedback, try the following.

How to respond to negative feedback at work:

  • Ask yourself if you’ve heard this before. If you have, well, where there’s smoke, there’s likely fire.
  • Ask yourself how your behavior could have caused people to experience you this way (even if you feel the opposite inside). Remember, introverts can be misperceived as arrogant and distant because of how people interpret their tendencies to keep to themselves. People can’t see inside your head.
  • Related to the previous point, communicate what’s inside your head so people don’t have to hypothesize why you do what you do. For example, if you’re the type of person who prefers to listen much more than speak during a discussion, let people know that so they don’t feel you’re bored, you don’t care, or that you’ve zoned out in the meeting.
  • Realize that perception is reality. I know it’s not really, but practically speaking, if people believe you’re a certain way, then you’re stuck with it. Now, what will you do about the impression you’ve made? The worst thing to do is to deny it. Instead, show people by your consistent actions over time that you’re different from what they perceive.
  • Appreciate that it’s only feedback. Yes, it has an impact on your job. But it is something you can address and remedy. It’s not the end of the world, and you'll be better for it.

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David Harper is Managing Principal of The Advisory Alliance, a professional services firm that develops high-potential talent for Fortune 500 & mid-market companies. He can be reached at