How to Give Feedback to Defensive Employees

Two managers having a difficult discussion
•••

Echo/Getty Images

Feedback is one of the most powerful tools in the manager's toolkit for strengthening workplace performance. There are three types of feedback—positive, constructive, and effective. Negative feedback focuses on identifying and promoting change in behaviors that detract from high performance. 

Learn some methods for delivering negative feedback and get results.

Privacy and Emotional Control

The first step is to find a private place for feedback. Conduct the meeting in your office or schedule a conference room for your feedback discussion. Next, ensure you're in control of your emotions.

It's OK to Take a Moment

If you need time to gather your emotions, delay the discussion a few hours or until you get your thoughts together. Remind yourself that the intent of feedback is to promote improvement and approach the conversation with a positive attitude. 

Sometimes immediate feedback is required, but if the situation is heated, it is fine to schedule a meeting for the next day.

Focus on the Behavior

Remember, the purpose of constructive feedback is to eliminate behaviors that detract from high performance. If the individual perceives that they are being attacked personally, they will quickly turn defensive, and the opportunity for a meaningful discussion will be lost. 

Be Specific With Negative Feedback

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 specific behavior and identify the business implications of the action.

For example: "Mary, you've been late five times this month. 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 reduces quality if they do not understand your specific job. Do you understand?" 

Behavior-specific feedback doesn't make a person feel as if their entire persona is being critiqued.

Feedback Should 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 so long after the fact. You should give feedback of all types as soon as possible after an event.

Positively Reinforce the Good

Employees need to feel that they can make mistakes and still be appreciated. Let them know that you still have faith in them as a person and in their abilities; it's just a specific 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."

Take Input and Agree on an Action Plan

After you have told the person what recent actions were inappropriate and why, stop talking. Give the other person a chance to respond to your statements and ask clarifying questions. 

Setting an exact date and time to review actions and improvement is an integral part of the feedback process. It establishes accountability and improves the probability of performance improvement. 

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.

Final Thoughts

While motivated professionals appreciate both positive and constructive feedback, managers are often uncomfortable delivering it. Some managers who struggle with providing constructive feedback are concerned that they will not be liked or 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. 

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.