How to Give Feedback to Defensive Employees

Two managers having a difficult discussion

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Feedback is one of the most powerful tools in the manager's toolkit for strengthening workplace performance.

  • Positive feedback focuses on identifying and reinforcing the behaviors that promote high performance.
  • Constructive feedback – often referenced as negative feedback– is focused on identifying and promoting change in behaviors that detract from high performance. 

Effective feedback is specific to the behavior (either negative or positive) and delivered as close to the occurrence as possible. While motivated professionals appreciate both positive and constructive feedback, managers are often uncomfortable in delivering it, particularly anything deemed as negative. In surveys and research studies, managers who struggle with delivering constructive feedback are concerned that they will not be liked or, they fear creating an incident by offering criticism. 

By following and practicing the suggestions outlined in this article, the manager can take the fear out of delivering negative feedback and turn the conversation into a constructive event. 

10 Tips to Help You Deliver Negative Feedback

  1. Get your emotions under control. You don't want to critique someone else's actions when you are angry or upset. If tempers are hot, take the time to let things cool down. While effective, constructive feedback is delivered as close to the observed incident as possible, if the situation is heated, it is fine to schedule a meeting for the next day.
  2. Never deliver negative feedback in front of team members. Find a private place. Conduct the meeting in your office or schedule a conference room for your feedback discussion.
  3. Focus on the observed behavior, not the person. Remember, the purpose of constructive feedback is to eliminate behaviors that detract from high performance. If the individual perceives he or she is being attacked personally, they will quickly turn defensive, and the opportunity for a meaningful discussion will be lost. 
  4. Be specific. Effective feedback is specific. Suggesting, "John, you sure goofed that up," might be true, but it does not tell John what he did wrong. The same goes for telling Mary that she is late to work too often. Instead, describe the very specific behavior and identify the business implications of the behavior. For example: "Mary, when you are late for your shift, it requires us to hold someone over from the earlier shift. This requires us to pay overtime; it inconveniences your colleague, and it may reduce quality if they do not understand your specific job. Do you understand?" 
  5. Be timely. If you have ever received a long list of negative feedback comments on an annual performance review, you understand how worthless this input is long after the fact. Feedback of all types should be given as soon as possible after the event.
  6. Remain calm. Regardless of how upset you are, it never pays to lose control of your emotions. As referenced above, if you need time to gather your emotions, delay the discussion a few hours or at most a day. Remind yourself that the intent of feedback is to promote improvement and approach the discussion with this positive attitude. 
  7. Reaffirm your faith in the person. It reinforces step three, but here you tell them that you still have faith in them as a person and in their abilities; it's just their performance you want them to change. Say something like "you're a good customer service rep, so I'm sure you see the need to be more patient with customers."
  8. Stop talking and invite the other party to engage. After you have told the person what specific, recent actions were inappropriate, and why, stop talking. Give the other person a chance to respond to your statements and ask clarifying questions. 
  9. Define and agree on a mutually acceptable action plan. Agree on what future performance is appropriate for the employee. If there are specific things the employee needs to start doing or needs to stop doing, be sure they are clearly identified. If there is something you need to do, perhaps additional training for the employee, agree on that as well.
  10. Establish a time to follow-up. Setting a clear date and time to review actions and improvement is an important part of the feedback process. It establishes accountability and improves the probability of performance improvement. 

And remember, after you have delivered the constructive feedback and agreed on a resolution and follow-up plan, move on with the job. Don't harbor ill will toward the employee because they made a mistake. Don't hover over them out of fear that they may make another mistake. Monitor their performance as you do all employees, but don't obsess.