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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How to Give Feedback to Someone Who Hates Getting It

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Giving constructive feedback is an essential management tool. Hopefully, your employees know this—and when you critique them, understand that it’s because you care enough to want them to do their best.

Unfortunately, though, not everyone has perfected the art of taking constructive criticism in stride. Read on for the employees who take it the worst, and how to best reach them.

1. The Employee With the Emotional Response

An employee who cries or huffs and puffs when told that he did something wrong isn’t just an unfortunate stereotype, it really happens. I know I’ve experienced being so invested in a project—an attribute which is usually laudable—that I couldn’t help but let out a few tears when told my work wasn’t up to par.

Your first step is to assess whether this response is routine or out of the ordinary. If an employee who usually takes feedback in stride looks a bit teary, odds are there is something else going on. The best thing to do here—if at all possible—is to table the discussion for another time. A simple, “It seems like you’re having a tough day, how about we check in tomorrow?” gives your employee the breathing room she needs. It also opens the door for her to share what is going on if she’d like.

If an employee regularly loses control of his emotions, then you need to address his inability to hear criticism as you would any other area for improvement. Find time to address this issue specifically: Begin by underscoring why feedback is important—emphasizing that you value him as an employee and that constructive criticism is a normal part of professional growth—then transition to what you’ve observed.

Try this: “I make suggestions because I want to provide you with everything you need to do a great job. However, I’ve noticed that when I start to bring up areas for improvement, you look visibly upset. Is that a fair assessment? I wanted to draw your attention to this issue, because I don’t want you to miss out on information specifically meant to help you excel in your role.”

2. The Employee Who Gets Defensive

Not all emotional responses are the same—the defensive reaction is in a category of its own. Whenever this employee is confronted with the suggestion that she did a less-than-stellar job, she tries to explain why her actions were infallible.

Often, the “But I did nothing wrong” approach comes from low self-awareness, so skip the Socratic method and be as direct as possible. In lieu of, “What is the best way to handle this sort of situation?” say, “I understand why you made the decision you did, but our policy is to handle the situation you encountered this way.”

Dealing with a subordinate who’s still convinced he didn’t do anything wrong? Schedule a time for him to give you critical feedback. Perhaps he thinks you single him out for criticism, or perhaps he really does have a brilliant timesaving method. Regardless, hearing him out will help with your communication standstill.

3. The Employee Who Doesn’t Get It

What about an employee who listens, nods, thanks you for your feedback—and then keeps making the same mistake? Some people won’t cry or get defensive, but they don’t know how to act on what you’re saying, because you’re not really getting through to them.

To remedy this, make sure you’re giving crystal clear feedback that includes examples and action steps. Instead of leaving it at, “It might be helpful for you to be friendlier,” try: “When we met with Bill last week you said, ‘Hello’ and then immediately dove right into your pitch. But taking a couple of minutes to visit—on anything from the weather to local sports—is often a better way to help you build rapport and ease the client into the meeting. Can you give that a try in today’s meeting?”

Taking feedback in stride is an important professional skill, and one you want all of your employees to possess. If someone struggles with criticism, help him or her as you would with any other skill, and temper your approach using the strategies above. Your hard work will help your employees work better now (and manage better someday).