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Giving constructive feedback in challenging situations can be difficult for managers. Yet it is key to effective performance management and building a culture of learning. We share actionable tips to help you and your teams succeed in three common challenging feedback scenarios.
You and your managers may already give constructive feedback well and adapt feedback to different cultural contexts. But are you and your managers able to handle challenging feedback situations when someone gets angry or goes silent? And, in a workplace made up of matrix teams, how can you and your managers give consistent feedback?
As organisations move to continuous performance review cycles, knowing how to give effective feedback has become more crucial. With more feedback more often, the potential for an increase in challenging situations arises. However, giving feedback in these situations is difficult. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 89% of senior managers have difficulty communicating, and 37% find it hard to give negative feedback .
Giving constructive or negative feedback is a core skill. Done well, it improves performance, engagement and motivation. Done poorly, it can provoke anger, erode motivation and damage relationships.
Start by understanding the power of emotions
A good people manager’s role is to understand and emotions carry important data for understanding. Angry or silent reactions indicate the feedback has been processed as a threat. The brain goes into fight or flight mode and shuts off logical thinking. When you start by using this understanding, you can use empathy and coaching skills to shift the emotional response.
Read on for actionable tips you and your managers can use as microlearning to help you handle challenging feedback situations and shift the employee’s resistant and defensive mindset to one of acceptance and learning from constructive feedback.
Scenario #1: Angry and defensive employees
No matter how factual and example-based my constructive feedback is, my direct report gets defensive and angry.
My internal response?
I avoid getting to the heart of the matter, get defensive or give up on helping them.
Regulate your emotions
- Prepare yourself mentally before giving feedback to employees
- Remember it’s important to allow space for them to vent without interruption. They are angry with the situation, not you
- Remind yourself of the employee’s strengths and your skills
- Avoid becoming angry by their emotional reaction. Maintain an open, curious mind and re-engage your logical thinking brain.
Showing you are actively listening can help calm the situation. Use open, positive body language, such as nodding, and, if culturally appropriate ask open questions to show interest in what the employee has to say. Culturally appropriate listening helps to uncover which emotions (e.g. fear, worry, embarrassment) may be driving the anger.
- Clarify that your intention is to help them achieve their goals
- Mirror the words they use to build connection
- Avoid ‘why’ questions as the employee may become defensive. Use ‘what’ and a softer tone. What is it specifically about the situation that’s causing you to feel angry?
Praise, seek common ground and next steps
- Tell them what they do well. Positive feedback opens ears
- When you both agree, restate it. Agreement breaks down walls
- Agree next steps and a future check-in.
If there’s an impasse... take a break
Take time out to cool off and limit further damage. Go for a walk, have a drink or snack.
Scenario #2: Silent employees
It’s impossible to give constructive feedback when the employee goes silent. I don’t know what they’re thinking.
I fill the silence. I don’t know if they are processing the feedback or will act on it.
Allow for silence and time to process
Silence, like anger, is a stress reaction. Remember, the employee is dealing internally with the feedback and needs time to process their response before vocalising. This is especially true for neurodivergent employees, including those with conditions such as autism, dyspraxia, and ADHD and is also true of introverts. Providing the employee with time to think is helpful. In the Time to Think model, research confirms that the quality of performance depends on the quality of thinking first .
- Tell the employee you will be quiet while they have time to think
- Count to ten or more
- Let them fill the silence, not you.
Write it down
Writing may be a more effective medium to process feedback, especially for neurodiverse employees. A recent MIT research study developed a Working Style and Feedback Preference Form for managers to use with employees to select their preferred medium to receive positive and constructive feedback (in-person, virtual, email or text/chat) and whose feedback they would like . Additionally, you could offer writing time during the feedback conversation. Expressive writing is a proven tool for regulating emotions and processing experiences .
- Invite the employee to free write silently for five minutes
- The person giving feedback can also write in silence
- Ask them to share some of their written reflections.
Ask open questions
Ask open, imaginative questions, to show interest and help them reframe.
What would you do in my shoes?
If you see this project as a character/film/dish, what would it be?
Offer them time to process outside of the conversation. Set a future meeting for them to feedback.
Why don’t you take some time to think of some options for doing things differently?
When would be good to discuss this, say, next week?
Scenario #3 Disagreeing with feedback in a matrix team
My direct report is confused and worried about constructive feedback their matrix manager gave to them.
I do not agree with the other manager’s negative feedback but don’t want to contradict them.
Discuss the constructive feedback with the matrix manager
It’s important to hear the matrix manager’s perspective and avoid misunderstanding. If your organisation’s culture allows it, propose that all feedback be discussed first with the line manager.
- Seek clarification and context for the feedback
- Offer your feedback
- Agree together a unified approach to the feedback
Arrange a meeting with the three of you to better understand the context and constructive feedback given and agree a plan together.
By following these tips for giving constructive feedback in challenging situations, you and your managers will be able to positively influence your direct reports’ mindsets and increase appreciation for feedback. By incorporating them into your Continuous Performance Management process, you will improve performance, engagement and motivation, building a culture of learning.
 https://commsmasters.com/2019/09/three-ways-leaders-stop-people-from-tak... leaders find giving feedback difficult and what to do about it – CommsMasters.com (n.b Kathy Greer link from which this was cited, dated 2018 is inactive)
 Kline, Nancy (1999). Time to Think. Listening to Ignite the Human Mind. London: Ward Lock. https://www.timetothink.com
 Hamdani, Maria and Biagi, Shannon, (2022) Providing Performance Feedback to Support Neurodiverse Employees, MIT Sloan Management Review, 01.02.22, retrieved 12.07.22 Providing Performance Feedback to Support Neurodiverse Employees (mit.edu)
 Expressive Writing Paradigm research by James Pennebaker – various research papers including writing to heal about trauma (1986), writing into job loss (1994) and books Pennebaker, J.W and Smyth, J.M. (2016). Opening it Up by Writing it Down. 3rd ed. London: The Guildford Press.