Blog Post 3-12-15

How to Handle Negative Reactions to Performance Feedback


“But that’s ridiculous!” Ralph sputtered, interrupting Mariah in mid-sentence. “I’ve been following the same reporting procedure for ten years! How can it suddenly be wrong?”

“It’s not so much that it’s ‘wrong,’” Mariah explained patiently. “It’s just that we need to be more thorough. Our public has changed over the past decade and they demand more information, faster, and with a wider scope. Most of what goes into your reports could be found on the internet.”

“You seem to have a bias against me,” Ralph responded, barely controlling his anger. “I’ve noticed it since the day I was moved into your branch. You treat me differently than the other public information specialists and I’m not the only one who has noticed it.”

As managers and supervisors, we’ve all been there before. An employee has been performing below standard on a particular task for as long as anyone in the agency can remember. Rather than seeking to improve the performance, previous supervisors have passed the employee along to other work units, sometimes even giving glowing references. What do you do when you need to give constructive feedback to someone who has been led to believe she is performing at or above standard?

Mariah knew she needed to start the process by giving objective, behavior-based observations to Ralph, and she used the six steps for giving effective feedback, but the employee blew up and challenged her. Given that Ralph had never received any feedback before, perhaps Mariah should have anticipated such a reaction.

Here are some steps to handle a tense situation in which your feedback is not accepted:

1. First, consider options for an appropriate time and place to meet with the employee. For example, if your office is visible to the rest of the team, forcing someone to make a public march to the “principal’s office” may start you off on the wrong foot. Perhaps meeting in a coffee shop would be better.

2. Then acknowledge the reality of the situation at the very beginning of the conversation, before the employee has a chance to become emotional. “I’d like to give you some feedback on your current reporting procedure. It may be the first time you’ve been given this feedback, so I understand it might be surprising or frustrating for you to hear.”

3. Observe the employee’s non-verbal signals carefully and watch for signs of an emotional response, so you may be better prepared.

4. Once the employee expresses anger, denial or defensiveness, shift from making observations to asking questions. “I see you don’t agree with my observation. Can you tell me more about how you see it?” “Can you walk me through your perspective?” “Can you tell me how you view this differently?”

5. Manage your stories. You may have been telling yourself that the employee was aware of the issue and deliberately chose to skate along at sub-par performance levels, but now is the time to question your assumptions. If the employee has never received feedback before, it’s very possible she has no idea she’s considered underperforming. Give her the benefit of the doubt, and listen actively as she begins to describe how she sees it.

6. Remember to remain respectful. Once a person perceives a lack of respect on your part, it will be difficult if not impossible to ask him to pay attention to your message.

7. Seek common ground to build on, and let the employee retain a feeling of control. Each of you may assess the employee’s behavior differently, but there are likely to be points of agreement, especially when it comes to the goals of the position. Use that to steer the employee toward a commitment. “It sounds as if we both agree that the public’s needs have changed. How do you think can we better address those needs?”

8. Make sure to explicitly link plans for improvement with clear objectives, and discuss any relevant metrics that might be used to measure success. “Let’s revisit our customer survey results at the end of this year to see if we’ve moved the needle on meeting our objectives in public education.”

9. End the conversation on a positive note. “It sounds like we have a plan. I appreciate your willingness to consider my feedback, and I know you want the best for our team. Let me know what else I can do to support you in making the changes we’ve agreed on.”