How to Give Feedback to Employees Who Can’t Handle Criticism

Giving feedback is important. It’s an essential part of effective communication and a key to helping employees improve.

And most of the time, it’s well received: according to a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published in Harvard Business Review, 57 percent of employees preferred corrective feedback over straight praise. I mention this statistic first to provide some hope before diving into today’s topic. Because in every career, there’s always that one person who treats even the most careful suggestion like Dikembe Mutombo treats a drive to the hoop: “No no no! Not in my house!”

Dikembe Mutombo on giving Criticism: "No! No! No!"

It takes a certain vulnerability to give feedback, so having your feedback rejected is a terrible experience. We’re so afraid of getting hurt or offending others that the Zenger/Folkman study found that people actively avoid giving corrective feedback. Instead of communicating with others to correct issues and make real improvements, we’d rather praise what’s going well and hope that the rest fixes itself.

This is an area where HR can help organizations do better. Let’s explore some of the sources of defensive attitudes and how we can overcome them when giving feedback.

Giving Feedback Where It Matters

People become defensive when they believe a situation threatens their basic needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined human needs in his famous pyramid, with the basics of sustaining physical life at the base and the most esoteric sense of purpose at the peak. Here’s a breakdown of this pyramid in terms of how people experience their workplace:

Maslow's Pyramid: focus on basic needs when giving feedback.

Our minds prioritize threats using this hierarchy. An employee who fears a layoff and is thinking of how she’s going to feed her family isn’t going to wonder why her job doesn’t challenge her enough. Shoring up the base comes before building higher.

But based on the Zenger/Folkman research, we’d rather give praise (addressing the sense of accomplishment near the top of the pyramid) than provide correction (addressing basic training and knowledge at the bottom). So it’s not surprising that most employees prefer corrective feedback.

Corrective feedback can reassure employees that their organization wants them to change for the better and fix their problems and that this change is possible with the organization’s support. But because this message involves basic needs, there’s always the potential for fear-based misunderstandings, where employees perceive the correction as a threat to their basic needs and react accordingly.

The Fight or Flight Response to Feedback

You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response: when facing danger, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol, breathing and heart rate speed up, digestion stops, the stomach churns. Along with these physical changes, the mind also focuses on the negative, interpreting ambiguous situations as negative and expecting the worst. And when the event passes, the stress chemical cortisol remains in the body to try and help it recover from the threat response. Recent research also shows that elevated cortisol reinforces the fight-or-flight connection in the brain, making it even easier to perceive threats and setting up recurring patterns of anxiety or aggression.

This means that when it comes to giving feedback at work, no news isn’t always good news. You and your managers may understand that your organization is doing well and that there’s not a round of layoffs around the corner. But for employees who have gone through prolonged stress on the job—whether at your organization or elsewhere—their baseline mental state may have them seeing threats in even small corrections. This can lead stressed employees to react to feedback and workplace stress with workplace aggression in all its forms, from slow-burning resentment to angry outbursts to passive-aggressive sabotage.

Taking the Threat Out of Giving Feedback

Here’s the question, then: how do you help your managers give unthreatening feedback when some employees have been conditioned to see a threat in any feedback? Here are three steps you can take to promote a culture of feedback in your organization.

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Make It Frequent

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? It illustrates what psychologists call desensitization. When a threatening situation doesn’t lead to negative consequences no matter how often it happens, the emotions that event produces start to diminish. This might be a bad thing for a lazy shepherd, but it’s a great goal for wary employees.

How often do you have formal feedback sessions scheduled in your organization? You could stick with an annual review schedule and count on managers to provide the informal correction that they hate providing. Or you could remove the threat with regular one-on-one meetings between employees and managers throughout your organization and prove over time that your brand of correction leads to improvement and success. It’s harder for an employee to take correction as a personal slight from a manager if everyone in your organization regularly goes through the same process.

On a personal note, I went through this process when I first started at BambooHR. After going through a layoff and years of job stagnation, it was hard to relax my guard and realize that I was hired for a solid reason. But after several months of regular one-on-one meetings, I came to know that there wasn’t a terrible surprise waiting if I made a mistake. I started feeling like my employer valued my contribution and was invested in improving it.

Make It Goal-Based

Perspective is essential when giving feedback. But it’s not something that can be imposed from the outside. Deep down, no one wants someone else to tell them what to do. If someone tells us “Don’t push the big red button!”, our first instinct isn’t to say, “All right, then.” It’s to ask, “Why not?” If a suggestion comes along that isn’t our own idea, we push back until we understand it and make it our own decision. And sometimes, that even leads us to push the button just to show that we’re free to make our own choice. Psychology labels this tendency reactance.

As your managers lead feedback sessions with your employees, getting each employee involved in setting personal goals helps remove this reactance barrier. This is one of the main reasons that BambooHR uses setting and tracking goals as an important part of our performance management offering. Effective feedback isn’t just about what the manager wants the employee to do; it’s about the steps that the employee and the manager can take toward reaching a well-defined goal. When both parties agree on the goal, it opens up space for an effective conversation on how to achieve it.

Make It a Conversation

Sometimes working toward a goal requires managers to implement feedback from their employees, especially when employees need to communicate with another department or if they need additional resources for one of their projects. Managers can’t react defensively to employee feedback and expect employees to remain open to feedback. If your feedback system is going to overcome the fear of giving feedback, then it needs to apply to everyone. When employees see that managers act on their feedback, it goes beyond making them feel like they’re heard; it provides solid evidence that their ideas and decisions matter.

What to Avoid When Giving Feedback

Establishing a frequent and goal-based feedback process that applies to everyone will help you reach even those employees who are resistant to criticism. However, an important part of knowing how to give effective feedback is also knowing what not to do. Here are some common communication mistakes to avoid, especially when you’re meeting with employees who have a hard time with negative feedback.

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Being Too General/Vague

In order for feedback to cause effective change, it needs to be specific. Employees are able to make concrete changes when they know what specific behavior or results need improvement, or what specifically you’d like to see more of. General feedback doesn’t give employees enough information to confidently move forward and improve.

Negative Body Language or Tone of Voice

A large part of communication isn’t in the actual words we say. How we say it (tone) and the way our body moves (body language) play a role, too. When giving feedback to employees, it’s important to be aware of your nonverbal cues as well.

For example, avoiding eye contact may make a person feel like you’re hiding something, or speaking curtly can make the most sincere compliments feel inauthentic. Likewise, crossing your arms creates a barrier between you and the person you’re giving feedback to, while fidgeting can give the impression that you’re anxious to be done with the conversation.

Make sure your body language and tone match the message you’re trying to communicate.

Giving Too Much Feedback

If you give a person a long list of feedback, chances are they are only going to remember some of it. They might also feel overwhelmed. Be succinct in the feedback you provide. And, if you’re following our advice to conduct frequent feedback sessions, then only address a few things at a time in each session.

Ending on a Negative Note

Helping employees improve should always be the goal of feedback and constructive criticism. Going over past mistakes or rehashing problems as your closing comments will leave people with a negative impression of the meeting. And, chances are, they will forget any words of encouragement you gave earlier. Ending on a positive note, like sincerely expressing your appreciation, is much more effective.

Setting up a culture where everyone feels comfortable giving feedback might seem like a large challenge. But when you take the time to develop effective feedback practices throughout your organization, it gets around the individual issues that hold your workforce back from effective collaboration, making it easier to reach your full potential.

For more on how to make effective feedback a part of your performance management process, download our Definitive Guide to Performance Management.