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LEADERSHIP LESSON: Giving Tough Feedback

It’s the dreaded conversation with an employee where you have to sit them down and give them some much needed “negative” feedback. You can call it constructive criticism or a development opportunity, but you and the employee both know: it boils down to discussing things the employee needs to improve. Typically, having these conversations are not a favorite activity of most managers. But, if employees are going to grow and thrive they need to receive all types of feedback – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In order to be effective, the feedback has to be specific, objective, and timely. The conversation should end with an agreement, between you and the employee, on changes/improvements that need to take place. Another key to giving effective feedback is to prepare for the session by thinking about how the employee will react and being ready to respond meaningfully to that reaction. Through the years, I have found that most reactions fall into a few distinct categories. Below are the most common types I have found and what you might expect.

The Cryer

This is tough one. It’s always challenging to discuss negative feedback when the receiver starts to cry. Although tempting, ignoring the tears is usually not the best way to go. It’s best to slow down, offer the employee a tissue, and give them a minute to collect themselves. If they aren’t able to re-focus ask if they’d like to take a short break. It’s important to find a balance between acknowledging their reaction and not letting the conversation get completely derailed. You need to make sure the feedback is delivered. If not in that session, you must follow through and deliver it later that day or maybe the next – you can’t let too much time pass.

The Quietly Defiant Employee

What about that employee who just flatly (yet silently) disagrees with the feedback? They sit with their arms crossed, a stoic look on their face, and slightly shake their head as you speak. Some managers take advantage of this quiet defiance by delivering the message and then moving on. But, that is taking the easy way out and not recommended. It’s important to pick up on their non-verbal cues and ask them what they think about the feedback. Even if they aren’t willing to share immediately, it’s important to dig a bit deeper so you can discuss their clear disagreement. Point out their body language and encourage them to talk. If you do get them to share their reaction, it’s critical that you acknowledge their perspective, but continue to emphasize the specific and objective feedback you came to deliver. Eventually, move the conversation to discussing the future and what changes/improvements need to take place.

The Defensive Reaction

You gotta love the employee who has an answer for everything! They want to tell you all of the reasons why your feedback is incorrect or why they did things the way they did. You don’t even get half way thru your message before they start explaining things away. This is a tough one. It’s very easy to fall into a debate with these employees – don’t do it! Listen to what they have to say (sometimes just actively listening to them goes a long way towards diffusing their defensiveness), but don’t get into a back and forth debate. Ultimately, it’s not important that they agree with the feedback, but it is important they agree to make the necessary changes to improve performance. 

The Passive Aggressive Employee

These are the employees that appear to understand the feedback and even seem to agree with it, but then leave the meeting and don’t make any of the agreed upon changes. They may even talk about their disagreement with the feedback to others, but not to you. Accountability is key to dealing with these employees. It’s important that you continue to meet with them and hold them accountable to the changes they committed to make. You may not ever be able to get them to engage in a meaningful and honest discussion about the feedback. Ultimately, your focus should be on holding them accountable to making the changes.


The key to having an impactful feedback discussion with an employee is part art and part science. It’s about making sure the feedback is specific, objective, and timely; but also anticipating what to expect from the employee. It’s critical to spend time preparing for the possible reactions you may get during the feedback conversation. The extra time preparing will help ensure that the session goes well and that the required changes/improvements are made. And this is the overall goal of all “constructive feedback.”

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