So how do you handle someone who is super-sensitive, defensive, and just generally resistant to receiving corrective feedback?
Actually, it doesn’t take much skill (or thinking) at all to let people know that they are doing things wrong, that they have screwed up, that they are not doing things the way YOU want them to do it. But people who know the art of giving corrective feedback have two goals in mind – first to change the behaviour and second, to maintain the relationship.
Begin, and this might be a surprise to you, with yourself. Why are you giving criticism/corrective? Perhaps it is your job because you are a Manager, a Supervisor, or a Team Lead. In that case, you have an obligation to the employee to help him/her improve. Or is it mostly because the person is doing it in a way that you would not have done it? You know the old saying “If it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid”.
Second (and given the old adage that an ounce of prevention etc.) what kind of discussion did you have prior to the person’s completing the task? If you are like many supervisors (at all levels) you identified the task to be done, asked if the person had any questions and was good to go. Very few people in my experience will ever admit that they don’t know how to do something. Nobody wants to look like a weenie to his/her boss. Instead they nod their heads, tell you they’ve got it covered, and then go off to find somebody who can tell them how to do it. You’re just happy that one more thing is off your plate, so you don’t even think to have a short conversation about how the person plans on getting the task done, let alone the standard which you expect to be met.
And third, if the job is one that will take some time or is quite complex, how often do you check in with the person to ensure he/she is on the right track? Do you wait until the entire job is handed in to you only to find that you have to rip it apart because it seems to have gone off in some completely unanticipated direction, or is just not up to standards?
In the latter case, and IF you are conflict adverse, you will probably just take the work and then re-do it yourself to your standards. The motto, by the way, of these types of bosses seems to be: If you want something done right, do it yourself.
But I have observed that much of the critical feedback that is given arises from things that a Manager believes the person should already know how to do. It’s not a new task that will require learning accompanied by mistakes; it is something that we figure is just common sense, but when we attempt to correct this behaviour, we find that that person is defensive, gives explanations an excuses as to how it wasn’t really his fault, that someone else is to blame. So how can we give critical feedback without the recipient rejecting it – in other words, change the behaviour AND maintain the relationship?
Here is one strategy that may be helpful. Let’s say that you received a complaint about one of your service staff – s/he was rude, abrupt, unhelpful.
Before you call the employee and correct this unacceptable behaviour (remember, you have only heard one side of the conversation), think of a time when you were aware of this employee handling a difficult customer in an exemplary manner.
Your conversation might go something like this: “Barb, I know you have been able in the past to handle very difficult customers with courtesy, diplomacy, and come up with ways to turn an unhappy client into a repeat customer. I was surprised, then, to have a phone call from an unhappy customer who felt that your conversation yesterday was not professional. What happened?”
You see what you have done here. You have NOT begun the conversation by assuming that the customer was an angel and that Barb was discourteous; nor did you blame her for bad behaviour. Rather, before getting into the situation and reprimanding Barb (for something that she might not even have done, by the way) you tried to find out from Barb how she perceived the situation.
This sends an important message to Bob – namely that you don’t rush to judgement and take the unsupported accusation of a customer over that of the employee. You begin from a positive position – namely that Barb has a successful history of handling difficult clients and that you assume something, perhaps beyond her control, happened here. Since you do not begin with a direct accusation of bad behaviour you immediately reduce the almost automatic defensiveness with which some people almost always use when confronted with a complaint.
The reply might be one of two types – I’ve encountered both. The person might indicate that they knew you were going to get a call because they did not handle the situation well, or they may blame the whole incident on the client being unreasonable. In either case, you ask them to think about what they might do differently if they had a chance to go through this situation again.
You could say something like, “Well I know you have handled unreasonable clients very well in the past. What was different about this situation?” There’s not much point blaming them for what they did yesterday. The best that you can do is plan with them how they might do better in the future.
We have been biologically hard wired to protect ourselves from attacks be they physical or psychological attacks on our self-esteem. They key to keeping people from becoming over-defensive then is to approach the situation from a problem solving point of view and not from an attacking, blaming stance. It is critical in this approach, however, to begin by letting them know that you have seen them performing well in the past – that way you work from their strengths rather than from their weaknesses.