What to Do When Your Employee is Defensive To Criticism or Won't Listen To Feedback.


Although this is a very common concern, it is possibly one of the most often overlooked.

When you're busy focusing on outcomes and output, as you should, it can be difficult to keep tabs on the fact you are being thwarted by an employee who will go to any lengths to avoid getting negative feedback.

General Information

When you're busy focusing on outcomes and output, as you should, it can be difficult to keep tabs on the fact you are being thwarted by an employee who will go to any lengths to avoid getting negative feedback.


While it's easy to spot those employees who find it difficult to receive negative feedback who become defensive every time you offer feedback, other behaviours are easily missed. Employees who are defensive to negative feedback could also shutting down in the conversation, act out in other situations, fail to follow through on requests or even avoid the meeting you have set up to give feedback on their performance.


It's because of this behaviour, that you may not spot the real problem, which is the employee hates getting negative feedback. After a few weeks of the employee 'kicking the issue into the long grass', the issue may have passed or you're deeper than ever into the matter and left feeling slightly confused. It's easy in these situations to view an employee as being a poor performer and lacking the skills to get the job done instead of being able to hone in on the real issue.


Course of Action

To know for certain that the issue is about an inability to receive negative feedback, set a meeting and take note of what your employee does. Do they call in sick that day, have a diary clash, cut the meeting short? If you manage to see them, do they become defensive, sit in silence and nod? Is there any acting out, absenteeism following the meeting or arguments with colleagues? These will be your clues to discovering if the issue is an inability to receive negative feedback.


Once you have established that this may be the problem, take a break from giving performance-related feedback. Leave your employee to get on with their work, taking note of how long it takes for them to return to their normal patterns of behaviour.


At a suitable time, set another meeting and focus on giving feedback on how the employee receives feedback. It should be its own topic of conversation, addressed when you have enough evidence to assume a pattern and when both you and your colleague have adequate time and energy to tackle it.


Things to Consider

This will be a difficult discussion to have, it's essentially a feedback session about getting feedback. Consider the following in order to find the right starting point and discussions between you and your employee.


Make the case

It's part of your job to give feedback and you should be giving regular performance feedback, both formally and informally, outside of the annual performance review. However your employee may not be aware that part of their job is to receive your feedback seriously and professionally. Explain that you understand receiving negative feedback can be painful, difficult to understand and challenging to act upon. To help the employee understand the importance of their part in the process, you could explain impact any resistance to has on you, the team, the organisation, and their own professional reputation and career trajectory if it continues.


Get curious

Assumptions are commonplace, especially for managers who want to focus on production. Remember you CANNOT assume that the employee receiving the feedback will automatically see their behaviour in the same way that you do. The best thing you can do in order to better understand what is going on for an employee and why they are resistant to receiving negative feedback it to be genuinely curious. So, instead of leading with lines like, “ Whenever I give you negative feedback, you don't seem to take it seriously,” demonstrate that you want to understand their point of view by asking open questions that invite discussion to help you understand more. “In our performance reviews, what are you typically thinking?”


Use neutral language

Want to make someone defensive? Tell them they're being defensive! Try to avoid words that carry negative connotations and place blame. Avoid confronting examples such as “When I give you feedback, I notice you won’t make eye contact”. Using the word “won’t” assumes an intention. Instead try, “When I give you feedback, I notice that you look at the floor. I’m curious to know what’s going on for you.” Reassure the employee that you are not judging them, you're just seeking to truly understand what going on for them.


Ask for feedback yourself

This is difficult for a lot of managers, and often difficult for employees too. Its's crucial you are able to develop a way to get feedback on your own behaviour in order for you to become a better manager and get the most out of your employees performance. The problem may in fact lie with you! You may not be giving your employee what she needs in order to hear, absorb and accept feedback. Perhaps your communication style is too direct, or you offer comments late in the day when she’s trying to get home, or you send mixed messages by too frequently pairing negative feedback with positive. Be brave enough to ask, “How am I contributing to this problem?” If you are brave enough to ask this, it's also the perfect way to model how to receive the feedback and take appropriate action.


Share a personal story

Sometimes it helps if you are able to tell a story about the same thing happening to you. This approach can normalise the often-painful experience of receiving feedback. Share the impact of that experience on you personally, your colleagues, the team and the organisation. Reflect too on what you learned from it, and how you’ve changed as a result.


Secure a commitment

If you want to make a specific request for a behaviour change, make sure you are also open to counter-offers. The goal in terms of giving negative feedback is not simply correction to the behaviour you want to see. Your employee is not a robot awaiting your commands. Work toward coming to a shared understanding and a shared agreement on the goal. You might say something like, “Moving forward, here’s what I’d like to see happen: I’ll give you some feedback and if disagree, have a different perspective on it, or think that I am not getting the whole picture, can you agree to tell me that in the meeting? In turn, I’ll agree to listen carefully and consider fully your take on the situation in the meeting. Then together, we’ll come up with a plan. Are you comfortable with that course of action?”


Acknowledge positive change

As soon as you’ve had the feedback-about-feedback conversation, start looking for evidence that your employee has taken your advice to heart. Speak up the very first time you notice them behaving differently.


Remember your job in giving feedback isn’t done when you give it. Your job is done when your feedback has been received, internalised, and applied.



Cue Cards



Hi _____________ , I'd like to chat with you about something real quick, do you have a minute?


It’s my job as a manager to help you play to your your strengths and work on any areas that need improvement. I just wanted you to know that when I have to tell you, or anyone on the team about something I believe you should work on, it’s not to discourage, criticise or judge you, in fact, it’s the opposite. I want you to be the best you can be and to grow and stretch yourself. You're invaluable to the team.



I've got a quick bit of feedback for you, do you think you could listen and take some action on it this week?


When I give feedback it's to focus on improvement, but I understand sometimes it might be challenging to hear? Could you let me know if you find any of my feedback challenging this week, when I'm giving you the feedback? I'm looking to improve the way I give feedback too.


Additional Resources

https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-right-way-to-respond-to-negative-feedback


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