Providing Feedback to Someone Who Is Overly Sensitive: Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

What’s the best way to give correction to a sensitive top performer?

I have a senior person on my team who is good at her job and takes great pride in performance excellence.

But when I try to give her anything less than positive feedback she’s practically in tears and proceeds to beat herself up for days: “Oh, I should have known better! I’m such a loser! You should just get rid of me!”

I’ve become hesitant to say anything that hints of criticism because of the emotion it produces. –Withholding Feedback

Dear Withholding,

This is a tough, but fairly common, situation when dealing with top performers. Many are driven by a need to avoid being criticized.

But before putting this all on her, let me first ask you a question: Is it possible your feedback comes across as harsh? The distinction can be as subtle as “You were late turning in that brief” vs. “That brief was late.” Using you can make people feel defensive, as can asking why.

If you are confident your delivery is not the problem, plan for the conversation thoughtfully. Be sure to broach the subject when things are going fine—in other words, strike while the iron is cold. Now be clear, concise and forward-focused. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Identify the pressing concern. For example, “When I give you redirection or make suggestions for possible improvements, you seem to take it to heart, and very personally.”
  2. Clarify the issue. Cite specific examples of the behavior in question. Keep things neutral by sharing only your observations.
  3. Tell her how you feel the current situation affects both of you. Share with her that her behavior has caused you to become hesitant to give her important feedback you believe would be to her benefit.
  4. Find out if she believes the problem lies with you. Ask her if she has any observations on how you might be contributing to the situation.
  5. Determine the future implications. Have a discussion about what may happen if nothing changes.
  6. Commit to making a request. Think about what you want her new behavior to look like and then ask for exactly what you want. Offer to support her in making the change.
  7. Describe the ideal outcome. Talk about the difference it would make for both of you if her behavior were to change.
  8. Reinforce her value. At the end of the discussion, it’s essential to endorse the things she does well and share the ways in which she is an asset to the team. This step is even more important when you are dealing with a high performer.

One caveat, though: following these eight steps doesn’t guarantee a quick change. Her behavior could be a lifelong habit born from a need to protect herself. But by following the eight guidelines above, you should find yourself in a better position to offer necessary redirection while avoiding most of the emotion. It’s worth the effort. Let me know how it works out.

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

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2 thoughts on “Providing Feedback to Someone Who Is Overly Sensitive: Ask Madeleine

  1. I like to ask questions. If you see something needing a correction, in a meeting you might say, “How could you make this even better” and them guide them to the idea. “How can I help you make this better?” is an even better question because it lets them know you are supporting them.

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