my employee shuts down when I give her feedback — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I manage “Mandy” and have needed to give her feedback a few times on the same topic. Think something like, “When you present a proposal, you need to avoid vague explanations of the client problem your proposal addresses and include detailed, quantified specifics of its impacts on the client.” I usually then go into an explanation of why it’s important to do this. But I think I get too long-winded, because Mandy always gets very quiet and just says “OK,” without asking questions, almost as if she’s being lectured. And I … get frustrated. I’d like her to engage with this feedback, not just shut down.

How can I stop getting so frustrated that feedback like “avoid vagueness” is nuanced and might take a few rounds to sink in? I’m new to managing mid-career staff like Mandy and I think I’m used to the more straightforward, unambiguous feedback I’d give to junior staff. What strategies can I use, scripts, even mantras to mentally repeat, to help cut myself off before launching into a long-winded explanation that might read as lecturing?

If you weren’t finding yourself having to address the same topic multiple times, I’d suggest that maybe the feedback itself is fine, but the explanation of why it’s important is unnecessary because Mandy already gets it as soon as you flag the issue — and so the explanation could be making her feel lectured or condescended to. If that were the case, I’d suggest skipping the explanation and just giving the feedback itself. Maybe end with, “Let me know if you want to talk any more about it or if you want me to say more about the rationale for that.” And then see what happens. If Mandy was able to take the feedback and run with it, that might be all the problem was.

However, this is different because the feedback isn’t sticking. Given that, are there other ways to coach her that aren’t “I sit across from you and talk about what needs to be different”? For example, maybe she’s someone who learns better if you can give her models or templates to look at — examples of what the work should look like, with a quick rundown of the differences.

You can also more explicitly engage her in these feedback conversations when you see her checking out. For example, give her the initial feedback with a brief explanation, not a long one, and then say, “If you were doing it over with that in mind, how would that change your approach?” or “Can we talk through what that would mean on X?” Or even, “Can you tell me what you’re taking away from this so we can ensure we’re on the same page?”

More broadly, you can also ask directly, “How do you prefer to get feedback? I’ve noticed you don’t engage a lot in the moment when we’re debriefing a piece of work, which is fine, but I also notice that the feedback isn’t always getting incorporated in your work later. Is there a way of talking through those changes that would work better for you?”

If she can’t answer that, my bet is that she’s uncomfortable with feedback in general and it could help to talk about how feedback works on your team — for example, that she should expect to get it on most projects, it’s not a sign that she’s failed, it’s a sign that you’re invested in helping her do well, and that for it to work you need her to listen and engage and right now it seems like she’s checking out. You might even look for ways for her to be around when someone else is getting feedback (someone who takes it well and has the kind of back-and-forth engagement you want) so she can see what that looks like in practice because she might have no idea. Obviously don’t just have her sit in on someone else’s check-in, but you might be able to orchestrate a way for it to happen naturally, like if she and the other person both worked on different parts of the same project.

If none of that works and she’s not engaging with feedback and not applying it to future projects, then you have a bigger problem. But try the strategies above and see what happens.

I realize the question you asked was “how can I be less frustrated that this isn’t sinking in?” but I think that’s the wrong question. “What’s not working and why?” is a better one.

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