Value of feedback depends on delivery & reception

Dear Joan:
I am the president of a small high-tech firm with 30 employees. I often read your column and use it for staff meetings to promote discussion. A few weeks ago you wrote an article about coaching that struck a nerve with many of our employees. It was clipped and passed around the office by several of our professionals.

Your points were specific, offer the feedback just before they can use it, coach often rather than a once-a-year performance review, focus on the future goal rather than past mistakes, and so on.

The managers/coaches at our company were discussing these points and came to a consensus about a problem we have here and perhaps at other businesses: How do you get the other person to listen to the feedback? Too often, they resist it or are downright defensive about any negative feedback they receive. For example, one of them is great with the customers but when any mention is made of problems with his technical skills, he bristles and discounts it-even when though the problem is significant.

These high-tech employees have a lot of pride about their expertise. They seem to think that if they have an area of weakness they are a failure. They also are off-site frequently and it's hard to know exactly what they are doing, other than through the occasional customer comment.

How do we handle some of these situations?

Sometimes employees are their own worst enemy. They say, "Why don't you give me feedback so I can grow and improve?" but too often they react so negatively to any attempt at giving it to them, the coach backs off and gives up. The tragedy is that the employee may feel better when the negative feedback stops but, of course, the problem remains and continues to poison their career progress.

There are many reasons for this resistance. Certainly the biggest one is the way the feedback is delivered. Too often, managers destroy the employee's self-esteem by criticizing with little regard for the person's ego. I hear horror stories about managers belittling and insulting employees, criticizing them in public, and favoritism. No matter how legitimate the feedback, the employee will not hear it when it's delivered like that.

Here are some additional tips for delivering feedback:

  • Don't use hearsay when coaching. Put yourself in a position to see the behavior first-hand. This may mean making customer calls together so you can see the problem for yourself.
  • Tell the person exactly how the negative behavior is getting in their way. For example if it's hurting their career progress or reputation as a technical expert, say so. They won't change their behavior until they see a compelling, personal reason. For instance, "It's great that the customers love the service you provide-you're excellent at building relationships. However, when you don't follow through on the technical things you promise them, your professional credibility is damaged and that relationship with them is jeopardized. This can destroy all your previous efforts with that customer and it will certainly hurt your career here."
  • Solicit feedback yourself and be a model for how to hear it and use it. If you set the tone in your culture, it will have a huge impact on everyone else. If your environment is overly competitive or blaming in nature, employees will resist feedback.

But there's another problem I see and it's more difficult to remedy. I'm alarmed by a growing trend in America's workplaces and it goes something like this..."I don't have a problem---you're just picking on me because (fill in the blank with "I'm a woman" "I'm black" "I'm over forty"). Another familiar refrain is "You can't criticize me...I'm going to sue." It's reactions like these that are short-circuiting the coaching process and ruining it for everyone. Obviously there are times when discrimination and harassment are indeed the problem but too often employees jump to these convenient conclusions because it's easier to accept than the truth. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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