When Constructive Feedback Ends Badly

By Malcolm Doig  |  Dec 15, 2017

When constructive feedback ends badly, how can we change the outcome?

Who hasn’t given feedback to someone that ended badly!  We start with good intentions, hoping they will accept the feedback and adapt their behaviour.  But what if the staff member reacts badly? 

This scenario is particularly troubling when the team member is otherwise a great performer.

Some people simply have real difficulty distinguishing any feedback on their performance or behaviour, from feedback on who they are as person. Unconsciously they might feel like feedback is deeply damaging to the core of who they are, and can struggle to cope emotionally.

Feedback can trigger the amygdala response for some people, the part of the brain that keeps us safe from perceived threats – and results in the fight, flight and freeze response.  What can we do?  Is it possible that we are helping to create the outcome we most dread?

Is it possible we are creating the outcome we most dread?

Here’s a few tips from my years as a leadership coach on how to deliver feedback.

Set the scene and make your intentions clear - Set an Intention

Ask yourself “What is my intention as a leader in giving this employee feedback?”. In my experience, having an intention “to correct an employee’s poor performance” will generally result in an unsatisfactory outcome for both parties, because our intentions are often transmitted at a sub-conscious level.  Having an intention, for example, to “help the employee grow and develop” leads to better outcomes.

Plan the meeting.  Think about the specific examples that will help the employee understand what the gap is between what they are currently doing and the impact that it has, versus what the desired standard is.

Have courage
These feedback sessions can be stressful, both for us as leaders, and for the employees, but don’t let that be an excuse to delay. If you delay you are allowing the employee to continue their poor performance and setting them up to fail.

Focus on development
Tell the staff member that you want to have a development conversation and offer them some feedback that will help them grow as a leader.

Give them hope!
I like to think of this as the leader symbolically positioning themselves behind the shoulder of the employee and letting them know “I want you to succeed”.

We can do this by describing why the employee is already highly valued by you and the organisation, and the potential that you can see in the employee for their growth, such as “you are highly valued here for your commitment and ability to deliver. You have a great future here and if you keep stretching yourself and developing you could be promoted to Position X within Y years“.

You may want to invite them to write down what you have just said.  This helps them take it in and they can refer back to it as an “anchor point” later in the conversation.

Describe the current gap in expected performance or behaviour
First, describe the gap in performance with respect to how this gap is limiting the employee’s development and growth.

Then be as specific as possible in describing the gap in performance or behaviour versus what the expected standard is. Provide examples and keep it very simple, such as:

From our recent survey, it is obvious that one thing is your ability to engage your people while demanding work deadlines are met. This means that your people do not want to work for you long-term. If you want to succeed here, it is vital that you learn how to maintain the high standard of work output from your team AND bring your people along with you and keep them engaged long-term”.

Allow silence for processing the feedback.  Hold the space of curiosity and seek to understand how they are feeling.

Let them respond
In letting them respond, they will usually offer you some insights into their perspectives, beliefs or mindsets that will help you coach them to a solution.

Discuss options for closing the gap
Help them explore options on how they might close this performance gap. What is important to them (values)? Ask them if they need anything from you to help them succeed.

Agree a forward plan and wrap up the meeting
Discuss the actions that the employee will take and agree any review dates.  Ask the employee how they feel and wrap-up the conversation.

About Malcolm Doig: 

Malcolm is a director of Corporate Evolution, where he coaches business leaders to become authentic, influential and purpose-driven. Malcolm’s mission is to “leave a legacy of extraordinary impact on business and the community, by raising consciousness of leaders”.

Malcolm also conducts public leadership training to help people discover their values and purpose. Malcolm’s next program is “The Inspired Leader Journey”.