Here’s how to give feedback to someone who’s defensive

Some people suck at receiving criticism. Try these steps to soften the blow.

Here’s how to give feedback to someone who’s defensive
[Photo: Oleg Magni/Pexels]

“Give lots of feedback,” they said. “Employees need it,” they said. But just because providing an honest assessment of your employees is the job of any good manager, that doesn’t mean that everyone will receive it well.


In fact, though Gallup told us that millennials need and crave feedback, just 17% actually ask for it. Among Generation Z workers, 60% want check-ins with their manager multiple times per week and 40% want daily or even more frequent interactions, according to the Center for Generational Kinetics’ 2018 report.

People may become defensive or angry when the input is negative. Perhaps they shut down or ignore it entirely. With some, it may feel like you’re just speaking a different language, says Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at 15Five, a performance management platform.

“Very few people are actually good at receiving feedback,” Metcalf says. “Anybody that is good at receiving feedback has probably gone through a process of learning how to actually receive feedback and not just get triggered,” he says. To help your team members get better at this, use these five steps.

Set some ground rules

Establish expectations, says Metcalf. It’s always going to be better received when employees have asked for it, so discuss why it’s important and how it can help them.

Have a conversation with your employees about how they like to receive criticism or suggestions so you’re not getting off on the wrong foot, says leadership and team coach Lisa Sansom. For example, some employees aren’t phased by receiving input in front of a group, while such a public display would cause others to shut down. If your team member prefers private, one-on-one check-ins, honoring those wishes will boost the chance that you’re heard, she says.


Use goals as a framework

Before you start giving a barrage of suggestions and corrections, take some time to put them in context, says team development consultant Pamela Mumm. If you work with your employees to understand their goals and help them understand the organizational goals, you can relate the advice back to those overall objectives, she says.

“When you know their goals, now you are no longer combating them or you’re not in the way of them; you’re actually a resource for them,” she says. “You can say, ‘I know you, I know what you want to achieve, and I also have a different perspective. I can see something that you probably can’t see. Do you want me to tell you about it?'” she says. Now, you’re not just randomly critiquing them. You’re helping them be more effective.

Make sure it’s not always negative

Avoid the tendency to default to negative input, Sansom says. You should also be liberal with positive input. “Feedback has a negative connotation, when it’s really quite a neutral word, she says. And when you do give negative feedback, be sure to listen to the response. You may find that your employee has a different understanding or opinion. That can give you insight into how to best direct them in the future, she says. Metcalf says it’s a good idea to adopt relationship expert John Gottman’s ratio of five positive interactions to one negative interaction.

Too much negative information can cause people to shut down. They may be afraid of losing their jobs or just feel demoralized.

In a study of its teams, Google found that psychological safety–the ability to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed–explained why some teams outperformed others, says Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. “What they discovered was that even the extremely smart, high-powered employees at Google needed a psychologically safe work environment to contribute their talents,” she says.


Don’t “hit and run”

If you notice a team member making the same mistake over and over again–perhaps forgetting to include inside sales in their financial calculations or missing an important quality control step–move beyond simple feedback and look for solutions. You might want to review the person’s process with them to look for an errant step or inefficiency that’s causing substandard performance, she says.

“You might find out from your employees, ‘Oh, I’m not getting that number,’ or ‘The number is being reported to me in a way that the technology isn’t picking up.’ There might be all sorts of really good reasons,” she says. When you understand the reason for the issue, you can work together to fixing it.

Get to the point

Sometimes, in the effort to not be too negative, managers err on the side of sugarcoating corrections or not being specific enough, Mumm says. Tiptoeing around the issue is just going to make the message confusing, she adds. The more specific you can be, the better.

Mumm finds that her clients will often complain about vague issues with their team members. They may point to a “bad attitude,” she says. “Bad attitude is not a behavior. What are the behaviors specifically? Now, when you talk to that person, talk about the specific behavior,” she says. “Once you’ve identified that specific behavior, then it becomes: How is that going to get in the way of their promotion, or the way of [them] landing business or whatever they’re trying to accomplish?” Show them how your intention is to use this check-in to help them achieve their goals.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites