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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Ask a Candid Boss: How Can I Provide Feedback When My Employee Gets So Defensive?

Dear Candid Boss,

I have an employee who gets defensive when I offer feedback. Any tips for providing effective feedback?

Just Trying to Help

Dear Just Trying to Help,

Every manager out there feels your pain. It’s hard to give feedback in the best of circumstances. So, when somebody gets defensive, it’s tempting to give up.

But, it’s your job to figure out how to get through. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you provide criticism.

Don’t Forget to Praise

Make sure to mention the things this person is doing right. Offer both praise and criticism so that the person hears both. Separate is often more clear than the “feedback sandwich.”

Do Emphasize Your Intention to Be Helpful

Your goal is to demonstrate that you are on this person’s side. Try saying something like, “I want to help you improve,” or share a story about a time when you made a similar mistake and somebody’s feedback helped you fix the problem. Choose wording that feels authentic, and make sure your mindset going into the conversation really is focused on being helpful. There’s nothing worse than an insincere lead-in followed by a kick in the shins.

Don’t Criticize Reactions

Telling somebody not to be defensive is a waste of your breath—this person probably already knows that’s not the best reaction.

Do React With Understanding and Compassion

If this person does react defensively, try saying something like, “I can see that you’re frustrated. I’m sorry. Is there a way I can say this better? I’m trying to be helpful.”

Don’t Escalate the Situation

Reacting to your employee’s defensiveness with frustration will only make things worse. This person is having a hard time hearing what you’re saying. Saying it even louder or more clearly won’t help. But don’t backtrack either. There’s a world of difference between saying, “I’m sorry you’re upset,” and “I’m sorry I said that.”

Do Be Open to a Conversation

Perhaps this person legitimately disagrees with what you’re saying. Remember, feedback’s a gift in one of two ways: Either it helps the person fix the problem or it helps to fix your misperception of the problem. Don’t forget to ask, “What do you think?”

Don’t Criticize in Public

When you do that, you’re much more likely to trigger a defensive reaction.

Do Pay Attention to Time and Place

In general, I recommend giving feedback immediately (you help the person fix the problem faster!), but it doesn’t help to give criticism when emotions are high. Also, give difficult feedback in person so that you can pay attention to body language and avoid potential miscommunications.

Don’t Criticize Personality

Avoid saying things like, “You are negative” or, “Everybody hates working with you.” The purpose of criticism is to help somebody change and improve, not to bring him or her down.

Do Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact Model

Instead of saying, “You are negative,” say, “In the meeting (situation) when you described how difficult the problem we are trying to solve is (behavior), everyone felt discouraged instead of inspired (impact).”

Giving feedback to someone who’s defensive is hard, and unfortunately I can’t change that. Criticism often stings in the moment, and there’s simply no way around that.

But, it’s your job to say these things. Fortunately, if you react to the hurt with compassion, you can help the person improve while also deepening your relationship.

This article is part of our monthly Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our coaches are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask a Candid Boss in the subject line.

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