How to Deal With a Defensive Employee When Addressing Performance Issues?

by Colleen Reinhart; Updated September 26, 2017
A defensive employee is less receptive to feedback.

Both giving and getting negative feedback is difficult, but that doesn't mean you should avoid telling employees about their poor performance to steer clear of an unpleasant situation. As awkward as negative appraisals may be, they're necessary, both for the sake of the business and the employee's professional development. Drag your feet on telling the truth and you could end up with confused workers, a poorly performing department or even a wrongful dismissal lawsuit when a worker cites lack of clear managerial feedback. To ensure that negative feedback results in a positive outcome, communicate compassionately and defuse defensiveness quickly.

Step 1

Review your own attitude when you notice an employee getting defensive with you. Criticism should be situation- and task-focused, not person-focused. For example, if you're upset with an employee about being late with his reports, you should say "I get frustrated with you when your work is late," rather than launching a personal attack such as, "You're so disorganized." If your comment sounded accusatory, apologize and rephrase it.

Step 2

Use "I" language for the rest of the evaluation, if you weren't using it already. Start all of your criticisms with "I" to make your comments less inflammatory. For example, compare the following statements: "I feel out of the loop when you don't communicate with me," and "You don't communicate. You're always leaving me out of the loop!"

Step 3

Ask the employee to tell you more about his perspective. If a worker says he thinks you're wrong, you want to know why, but launching a barrage of "why" questions only makes an already-defensive worker feel like he's on trial. Instead, try "Could you tell me more about why you feel that way?"

Step 4

Provide concrete examples of what you're talking about. Lace the negative feedback with positive observations. For example, if the employee has an angry outburst about a low initiative score on his performance appraisal form, say "I've observed that you leave the office early, and while you complete your all assigned tasks very well, I've noticed you don't volunteer to take on more work when you have extra time. How do you feel about that?"

Step 5

Acknowledge the employee's frustrations. For example, if he is still very defensive after being provided with examples of his behavior, say, "I understand that you're quite upset about what I'm telling you here."

Step 6

End the conversation with positive, forward-thinking comments focused on improvement. After recognizing the employee's feelings, say, "I'm telling you these things because I think you have lots of potential to improve, and I want to make my expectations clear. In the future, please let me know if you think you might miss a deadline so I can offer resources and suggestions."

Tips

  • Prevent defensiveness before it happens. When it comes to official performance reviews, make sure your employees know what's expected by providing copies of evaluation forms at the beginning of the year. Consider having two performance reviews: a preliminary review that allows people to improve, and a second, final review that's linked to raises and promotions. People tend to get much more defensive when feedback is linked to their paychecks and they're not provided with opportunities to improve before management makes serious decisions.

    Some employees agree wholeheartedly with negative feedback to try to escape the manager's office quickly: "You're completely right about that. You don't need to say anything more. I'll do better from now on." This behavior is a second type of defensiveness, and is just as damaging, since you can't be sure the person understands how to improve. If you're dealing with an employee who's trying to flee, say "I'm glad we see the issue from the same perspective. I'd like to take some time to give you more detailed feedback and suggestions on how to improve."

About the Author

A professional writer since 2006, Colleen Reinhart has held positions in technical writing and marketing. She also writes lifestyle, health and business articles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Business degree from the University of Waterloo, and a Master's degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Toronto.

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