What to do if your staff won’t act on feedback

Much has been said on the topic of giving feedback – it’s vital to building an effective team and boosting productivity, among other things.

But what do you do if you’ve given a team member feedback and they ignore you? Or get defensive? Or even begin to evade discussions involving feedback?

The answer? Stop giving performance-based feedback and focus instead on providing feedback about how the worker receives the feedback itself.

While this may sound unconventional, a staff member’s commitment to professional growth is just as critical to being part of your team as their core work skills, or their communication and collaboration skills. And that’s exactly why it should form its own topic of conversation.

So how should you approach a discussion with a staff member who seems to ignore, resist or defy your feedback? With thanks to Deborah Grayson Riegel, principal at US-based leadership and team development firm Boda Group, here are seven steps:

1. Make your case

While everyone understands that giving feedback is part of a manager’s job, some might not realise that their ability to accept – and act on – feedback is part of theirs.

Start by explaining to the staff member in question how their inability to act on your feedback impacts you, your team or the wider organisation. Is it affecting office morale, or eroding relationships with clients? Or will it affect their career in the organisation longer term?

2. Ask them what they’re thinking

Give your staff member the benefit of the doubt – they may not perceive the situation as you do.

Instead of approaching them with the assumption they know they’re being difficult, acknowledge that you’re simply expressing an opinion – and that you want to hear theirs, too.

How? Invite them to answer open-ended questions like, “Can you share what you’re usually thinking in our performance discussions?”

3. Avoid aggressive language

Try to avoid using words that are accusatory or carry negative connotations – and certainly don’t accuse the staff member of being defensive!

Absolutes like like ‘always’ and ‘never’, or words that assume intention like ‘won’t’ and ‘don’t’, are best avoided in the context of statements like, “You never listen to my instructions,” and “When I give you feedback, you don’t make eye contact with me”.

Instead, withhold your interpretation and judgement, asking questions like “When I give you feedback, I notice you look out the window – I’m curious to know what’s going on for you?”

4. Ask for feedback yourself

It would be unfair to assume your team member’s inability to accept or act on your feedback is their fault. In fact, it could be that you’re inadvertently not giving them what they need to accept and heed feedback.

Is your communication style too direct or abrupt? Do you typically attempt to give feedback at the end of the working day? If your team member is confused, threatened or inconvenienced by your method of feedback, that’s something you should know.

You need to ask them if you’re contributing to the problem. While it requires some courage to consider the possibility that you’re part of the problem, it also presents a great opportunity to model how to take the feedback you might receive from them.

5. Get personal

Show your colleague you’re human, and that the ability to take feedback can be taught.

How? Share with them a story of a time you didn’t take feedback well, or, indeed, at all. Let them know what lessons you drew from the experience and what’s changed for you since then.

6. Ask them to commit

Specifically and directly ask the staff member in question to change their feedback-related behaviour, and then welcome any potential counter-arguments. Once you’ve hashed out your differences, come to an agreement on the goal.

This could sound something like: “Next time I give you feedback that you disagree with, let’s agree now that you’ll tell me in the moment. I agree to really listen to your take on the situation, and we’ll come up with a plan together. Does that work for you?”

7. Catch them doing something right

Recognising a staff member for their achievements in accepting your feedback is the vital final step of the process.

Once you’ve gone through the process of giving feedback about their ability to take feedback, start looking for instances in which your staff member has taken your advice to heart. Then, genuinely commend them the very first time you notice them acting in accordance with your discussion – being sure, of course, not to patronise them.

It’s easy to assume that your job is done once you’ve provided your staff with feedback. But sometimes getting them to accept it and act on it is much more difficult. And while these important steps in the process are often overlooked, it’s something you can always work to address and improve.

Have you ever dealt with a team member who wouldn’t take feedback? What did you do to make the relationship work? Please share your tips in the comments below!

Image: See-ming Lee/Flickr.

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