How to Give Feedback to a Defensive Staff Member

A reader asks:

“I need to talk to a staff member about some things I’d like to see her change, but in the past when I’ve given her feedback, she’s become very defensive. She gets upset and focuses on arguing that she’s not at fault – when I’m not interested in talking about fault, just in being able to talk about how we could be doing better. How do I get my message through when she’s likely to have her hackles up?”

 

Defensiveness is one of the most challenging responses you can get to feedback, because it can keep your staff member from really hearing what you’re saying – and thus from being able to benefit from it. And too often, it results in managers hesitating to give feedback at all – which of course is a disservice to the staff member (who may later get blindsided by it in a performance evaluation or wonder why she can’t get raises or promotions), as well as to the organization, which needs people to get feedback in order to develop and get better results.

But what do you do when a staff member resists hearing feedback – becoming upset or frustrated or automatically pushing back?

Rather than struggling to manage around the behavior, try addressing the behavior head-on, by giving feedback on the defensiveness itself; identify it as a problem that needs to be resolved, as much as any other performance issue. Here’s a quick roadmap to doing that.

1. Start by naming the issue. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed that when I give you feedback, you often seem upset and focused on why the feedback is unnecessary. It makes it hard for me to be able to talk to you about things I’d like you to try doing differently. I know it can be hard to hear, but we need to be able to have those conversations without them becoming heated.”

2. Then, describe what you need from the staff member. For instance, you might say, “Going forward, it’s important that I’m able to bring you concerns or suggestions and have you really hear me. If you have a different point of view, it’s fine to say so – but at the end of the day, I need you to be open to what I’m saying without automatically pushing back.”

3. Offer some reassurance, if it would be genuine. Defensiveness often stems from insecurity, so if it’s true, you might help make the person feel “safe” overall. For example, you might add something like, “Your overall performance is strong. So when I come to you with feedback, it’s not a message that you’re failing – it’s about how to get even stronger. But you won’t be able to grow in your job if we can’t have those conversations.” (Of course, make sure that you only say this if it’s true. If the person isn’t performing well overall, don’t mislead them. In that case, you might say something like, “These are serious issues, but I think it’s something you can work on, and I’m here to be a resource to you.”)

4. From there, treat the defensiveness the same way that you would any other behavior that you asked a staff member to change. Managers sometimes feel they can only assess performance (and create consequences) based on work quality, and that other issues – like how someone interacts with others – aren’t as easily addressed. But this absolutely isn’t true; you can treat defensiveness or other “soft skills” issues just like you would any other performance issue. That means that you should offer positive feedback if you see an improvement (“I really appreciate how open you were to hearing my thoughts on this”) or address it – in a progressively more serious manner – if you don’t see the improvement you need (“We talked a few weeks ago about how I need you to be open to hearing feedback about your work, but you’ve continued to seem adversarial”).

5. Make sure that you don’t let defensiveness or your fear of defensiveness stop you from giving feedback. Going forward, if the staff member continues to be defensive, don’t let that stop you from giving feedback. If it seems like it would help, it’s fine to give her time to process your feedback and come back to discuss it with you later – some people need that in order to think and speak calmly – but whatever you do, don’t allow a defensiveness habit to circumvent feedback conversations altogether.