When an Employee Won't Accept Feedback

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell 

Q: I recognize that giving feedback is an important part of my job, but I have an employee who immediately gets defensive and shuts down when I try to give it. What can I do to get her to listen to me?

A: Giving and receiving feedback are critical parts of the manager-employee relationship. It sounds to me like your employee doesn’t understand that feedback is a two-way process: In order for it to be effective, the person receiving it has to accept it.

I have some experience with this problem. I once worked in an organization where everyone had advanced degrees. We had many employees who’d always been praised for their high achievements. To them, feedback suggesting that they could improve was seen as personal failure. We had to do a lot of work to get employees to understand that feedback was intended to help them achieve even better results. Some of them never did grasp this and left the organization.

From your question, I assume that this person is an otherwise good performer and you want to keep her on your team. To address the issue of her defensiveness, start by having a conversation with her about feedback in general. Do this at a time when you aren’t actually giving her a critique, and allow enough time for this discussion so the two of you can reach a common understanding.

Let her know that part of your job as her manager is to provide feedback to help her learn and grow in her job.

Let her know that part of your job as her manager is to provide feedback to help her learn and grow in her job. Give her an example or two of times when she’s resisted your feedback, and explain the impact that resistance has had on you and your team’s work. Ask in a nonjudgmental way why this continues to happen, and be prepared to get some feedback yourself on your own style.

You may find out that your communication style is too direct. If you soften your tone, she might hear you better. It could be that you always give feedback when she’s just leaving the office and doesn’t have time to focus on it, and by the next day, you’ve moved on to something else. It also could be that you only give negative feedback. As a result, she dreads these conversations and defaults to staying quiet until it’s over.

Whatever the disconnect between your desire to provide feedback and her resistance to it, make a real effort to meet her needs once you understand each other’s position. At the same time, closely monitor her abilty to accept feedback. You may need to have this conversation again.

Feedback needs to be heard, internalized, and applied to be successful. Offering feedback on receiving feedback is worth the time and effort it entails.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

Performance Management Coaching and Mentoring