What Do You Do When Employee Feedback Goes Wrong?

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What you do when you give an employee feedback and they disagree or get upset with you is one of THE most important managerial moments-of-truth to master.

If you handle this poorly, the employee might comply, but they are likely to leave the conversation distrusting your judgment, losing respect for you, and feeling resentful.

If you handle it well, not only will you get better performance, you will strengthen your relationship with them — and therefore increase their engagement level moving forward.

9 ways to turn a feedback problem around

Here are nine (9)  recommendations to turn a “feedback gone bad” situation around.

1. If you get the feeling that they don’t agree with your feedback or appear to be getting upset, but they’re not saying anything, invite them to talk.

    • Example: “Claire, I get the feeling* that you disagree with what I’m saying. Can you tell me what you’re thinking?”

2. Don’t simply amp up your argument and try to convince them through brute force. Ask them questions; find out why they perceive the situation the way they do.

    • Example: “So, you feel like you’re handling the account as well as possible. Can you say more about that?”

3. Give them the chance to talk. If they’re upset, give them time to vent. If they’re really emotional, they won’t be able to take in what you’re saying or think rationally until they get to tell their story.

4. Paraphrase your understanding of what you understand their perception to be. Do this so they know you “get it, ” or if you discover that you didn’t “get it,” they can help you understand what they were saying.

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    • Examples: “Cal, I want to make sure I get your take on this… you feel my take on this whole initiative thing we’ve been talking about is wrong… you feel like you do show initiative, do next steps without having to be told, go the extra mile, etc …”
    • Roger, it sounds like what you’re saying is that you thought ___ was a priority rather than ___ which I thought I had communicated.”

5. Acknowledge their position or point of view.

    • Examples: “I know you see it very differently.” 
    • If, after discussing the situation, they still disagree with your perception — “I know there probably isn’t anything I can say at this point that will change your mind.”

6. Acknowledge that it’s unpleasant for them to receive negative feedback or to be subjected to an evaluation they disagree with. Be sure to use a “we’re equals” tone of voice and not a patronizing, superior tone of voice.

    • Examples: “For what it’s worth Terry, I know it’s a drag to get negative feedback from your new supervisor when your former one gave you the impression that everything was great.”
    • You know Max, I can understand why you’re upset, given that you don’t agree with my feedback. To be honest, I’d be just as frustrated as you are if I was in your situation…”

7. Remind them, using a conversational tone — and not in a preachy or “I am the boss” way —  that you are accountable to your employer for setting standards and deciding whether they are achieving them, just as they would be if they were your supervisor. Include the reality that, while they have a right to disagree with your perception, they still need to meet your expectations.

    • Example: “Charlie, I hear you loud and clear that you disagree with my assessment of how you handle customer complaints. However, as you know, part of my responsibility is to evaluate each team member’s performance to the best of my ability … just as you would be required to do with me if you were my supervisor. So, while I know it’s a drag to feel like you’re being evaluated inaccurately, this is where I stand after giving it a lot of thought and taking into consideration what you’ve said. While we can agree to disagree in terms of perception, whether you think I’m off base or not, I still need you to meet the performance expectations I outlined…”

8. For issues that relate to interactions with others, involve them in detective work to see if they observe what you’re noticing. Ask them to see if they notice what you said is happening. Let them know that you would be interested in hearing about what they observed.

    • Example: “It seems like we’re at a place where we see things quite differently. I see you as needing to contribute in team meetings in a more positive way rather than making sarcastic remarks about people’s ideas and the other things we talked about, and you’re feeling like you already do contribute in a positive way.”
    • “Here’s what I’d like to ask you to do: how about if you pay attention to how you interact in our meetings for the next few months and notice whether what you say helps others or puts them down, notice if you offer solutions when you say something won’t work, or even if you say an idea won’t work, notice how you do it. Is it in a dismissive way or do you challenge people in an upbeat, respectful way to think it through more clearly. How about if you sort of watch yourself in action and I’ll do the same? If I see an example of what we’ve been talking about, I’ll bring it up after the meeting so you know more clearly what I’m talking about. If neither of us notice anything, then that’s great… we won’t have to have this conversation again.”

9. Demonstrate good will by keeping an open mind, and letting them know you will, especially if the other person has brought up some valid points that put your perspective in a new light or, if there is room for doubt for whatever reason.

    • Example: “You know Jim, although I was pretty clear coming in here about how I saw this situation, you brought up some valid points, so let’s both of us keep a closer eye on this. I’d like to ask you to especially pay attention to _____ and I’ll do my part to notice when you’re right on track and give you immediate feedback if I see an example of what I was talking about. How’s that sound?”

Enough from me; What about you?

  • What have you found useful when dealing with someone who either gets defensive or just disagrees with your feedback (especially when they are a direct report)?
  • What questions do you have that you would like answered? (I’ll try to answer as many as possible in the comments below and hopefully others will contribute also.)
  • What aspects of giving feedback do you find challenging or puzzling? (Again, I’ll try to address them and hopefully others will do also.)

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.


19 Comments on “What Do You Do When Employee Feedback Goes Wrong?

  1. I’m glad you added number 9 because up until then it sounded like the manager, although being respectful, had already made up their mind about the employee/situation. Sometimes, assessements are wrong. Personally, I would appreciate my manager doing some fact finding, to include asking me questions, before determining the fault. That way at least I feel like I had a chance and they were truly being fair.

    1. Thanks Alexandra for weighing in.

      RE: Personally, I would appreciate my manager doing some fact finding, to
      include asking me questions, before determining the fault. That way at
      least I feel like I had a chance and they were truly being fair.

      Amen to that!

      I bet when you’ve had managers who DON’T do that, not only is it a turn off, it also makes you lose respect for them because they’re not doing what is Management 101.

      Any suggestions you would add to the list?


      1. I don’t think so. It’s a great list. I’m a career admin and have had positive experiences for the most part with the exception of one position. To sum up the issue with that manager – he did not treat us with dignity, respect or basic decency. He was a text book bully.

        I think (assuming your employees are reasonable people) if you approach them with the points you recommend you will be okay. When I know I made a mistake I own it immediately and don’t do it again. There have been times when I initially didn’t understand the error and I did have the urge to defend myself but I was lucky to have a manager who very calmly and in a non-accusatory way explained the issue. It calmed me and he still allowed me to explain but in the end I agreed I made a mistake and even better I understood why it was not a good idea. I would think that not only do you want to address any issues but you also want there to be clarity. The incident I am think of was in my early 20s. I told a friend/coworker I got a raise. She took that information to her boss to use it as leverage for her to get one. My raise was just $1000 and I thought hey, this person is my friend. I’m glad for how it was handled and I’m glad it ended up being a learning moment for me.

  2. Excellent article. Very well rounded and the examples are spot on! Make it a conversation versus a confrontation.

    1. Thanks Kim. You identified a HUGE point both in style and mindset. I’ve found over the years that doing my own work ahead of time to foster an open mind and truly “seek to understand” and then in the conversation…use a low-key voice tone…that is time well spent.

      Thanks for weighing in,

      Any else you would add to the list?

  3. What came to my mind as I read your blog, Charles, is how respected people feel when you take the time to really listen to their point of view – when you deliberately create dialog rather than shut them down in order to get on to the next important task of the day. This kind of respectful dialog engages employees, colleagues, and even supervisors in delivering more value to the team or organization from whom they work.

    1. You got it Linda. You hit on a key point that I try to get across when working with managers “Everything Matters” (a saying I heard from Scott Bedbury, in talking about the philosophy of great brands he worked for, like Starbucks and Nike).

      Every interaction, every way of handling an interaction matters in terms of what it says to the employee about how their manager/employer thinks about them and feels about them…and therefore the effect that interaction has on the employee.

      So just the act of asking questions and truly wanting to understand the employee’s point of view doesn’t just give the manager useful information, it also helps build a strong, productive relationship with the employee, because of the message doing so sends.

      Anything you would add to the list from your experience?

      Best regards,

  4. Spot-on article, thank you. I would suggest that follow-through by HR/Management is key to adding value to this type of interaction, and will facilitate desired behavioral changes.

  5. In my experience the phrase ‘performance management’ cast a dark shadow of negativity over any engagement between leaders and the led. For employees it is rarely used to describe the process of continuous consistent feedback; they see it as a formal “get better or else” event

    It may also indicate the management team’s daily language and culture concerning individual feedback. A manager’s key role is to make people the best they can be; to enhance their performance. Therefore performance feedback must a true balance of good and not so good news; which for some managers is not easy.

    I believe enhancing employees performance is less about forms and performance
    audits and more about people talking to people. The absence of regular open and
    honest conversation is invariably found to be the root cause of all ‘people

    Managers must clearly understand the need to fully engage with all of their
    people,including those they don’t like, and some that they are scared of. The
    solution may be simple, but it is just not easy.

    Organisations cannot permanently tolerate managers that are universally agreed to be just OK. Feedback and development are key people skills that managers must have. “Performance Management” perhaps better called “Enhancing Performance;” that fails is invariably caused by failing managers calling out for help. Key actions for an improvement plan could be;

    1 Produce generic roles and responsibilities for leaders and managers; include

    2 Ensure each manager carries out a 360 degree appraisal of their competence for each of the generic roles and responsibilities defined.

    3 Use the output to create an individual learning and development programme for each manager

    4 Ensure existing operational progress revue meetings are used to give feedback
    about performance as well as progress. Create an appraisal habit not an ‘event’

    5 Have structured meetings, with mutually agreed agendas, objectives, and minutes. Consider using http://www.one2onetracker.com/ to achieve all of this.

    In short, the use of the phrase “performance management” too often indicates OK
    managers needing feedback, help and support, please help them; to help us all.

    1. Amen to that Mike. As I like to say “the operative term in performance review is…review. It’s not Performance Late Breaking News.” I believe if more managers had simple, ongoing adult-to-adult conversations in the workplace as just part of doing the work, there wouldn’t be the “dreaded performance review ” perspective both parties typically have when performance review time comes around, nor the awkward school teacher-student kind of vibe performance reviews often have.

  6. David, You do a great job modeling how to receive feedback. Your responses to every poster are an example of listening and seeking to understand and not getting defensive, and that’s hard! Thanks for showing us how it’s done.

  7. Very thoughtful piece David, and well-explained with best-practice examples. Some of my thoughts on this are –

    #1 should be done not simply for the sake of doing it, but because you want accurate information to work with. Listening to the employee’s perspective may make you aware of something you didn’t know and change your perspective as in #9

    Regarding #2, sometimes employees can’t be convinced even if what you’re saying is 100% objective and correct. But the good news is, commitment is more important that agreement. Either they agree and commit, or disagree and commit, for the sake of the organization, which is outlines very well in #7

    In addition to giving them time to talk as mentioned in #3, I would also give them some time to absorb and think about what I said. And they can come again to me once they gather their thoughts and are ready to share them.

    Loved the points #4, #5, #6 about putting yourself in their shoes and acknowledging their perspective.

    In the end, I would also like to remind all of us that all these best practices are supposed to work well in a performance-review or feedback meeting, but it is best to not wait for such meetings every couple months and vent out all the negative feedback collected during this time. Feedback works best when it is given as close as possible to the time of the situation about which the feedback is. So the employee knows it is correct and fair.

    1. Great points Hitesh. I especially liked the addition of:

      “In addition to giving them time to talk as mentioned in #3, I would also
      give them some time to absorb and think about what I said. And they can
      come again to me once they gather their thoughts and are ready to share

      While this is always a good idea, it’s especially important with introverts, who need time to process information internally. So making it clear that you’re open for follow-up discussions is helpful both for practical reasons–it allows them time to process–and relationship reasons–it shows you care about them, their opinion and how your feedback affects them.

      Thanks for sharing,


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