I manage a team that has been working together for a long time, although one person recently left. Her replacement is a new high performer who is settling nicely into the job. He has all the experience and skills we were looking for, but he hasn’t quite figured out our culture or the accepted communication norms in our organization.
When I give him feedback on his communications to make them more aligned with expectations, he gets really defensive. The last time I did this he said, “I do good work; I think you’re too picky.” I was taken aback and didn’t say anything, because nothing I could think of saying would have been appropriate. I am not used to an employee talking to me that way.
Ultimately, it is my job to give him feedback to help him be successful here, and I don’t think it is appropriate for him to make personal observations about me. I am not picky, really, but I know my boss and the executive team are. They have expectations about the way my team does things that they have made clear.
How do I approach this? I am not sure quite where to start.
Dealing with a Defensive Direct Report
Dear Dealing with a Defensive Direct Report,
You are right on both counts: it is your job to give your people feedback so that they can be as successful as possible in their jobs, and it is not appropriate for anyone at work to make personal observations about you.
Shut. It. Down.
It is your job to swiftly and clearly put up the hand and make clear that you will not tolerate that kind of response in the future. If you don’t, your new team member will assume that what feels normal to him is okay with you.
You were wise not to get defensive right back. (I can’t believe you didn’t say “excuse me?”) You are obviously thoughtful and have good self-regulation.
Now leverage that thoughtfulness to prepare for a conversation with your direct report. Think through the messages you want to get across. Choose the most important points and start with them. In your case, it might look something like this:
- My job is to give you feedback so that you can be as successful as possible in your job. I need to be able to offer you the guidance you need to be successful without being worried that you are going to get defensive and make personal observations about me.
- If you are not willing to take feedback and use it, we may have a problem.
- You are certainly allowed to disagree with me, but you must treat me with respect.
- Of course you do good work—if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be working here. But there is a difference between my giving you feedback on details and my giving you a wholesale critique of your work in general.
- The feedback I give you is directly related to the expectations and standards of my boss and the executive team. Yes, I am picky around things that I know others in the organization are picky about.
- Our team’s purpose is internal customer service, and it is important that we all use a consistent approach with all of our communications.
I am sure I got some details wrong in these examples; suffice to say the more to the point and succinct you can be, the easier it will be for you to get through the feedback and for him to understand it. It might also be a good idea to write it all out and send him the summary in an email, so you begin a record of the interactions.
If it turns out that your direct report refuses to use feedback to meet expectations and continues his defensiveness and hostility, you will want a clear trail of evidence. No matter how good someone’s work is, there is no reason to tolerate disrespect.
You could take another approach entirely, of course, and go in with questions to get to the bottom of the defensiveness and possibly get insight into what is prompting the behavior.
- How might I frame feedback for you in a way that makes it easier for you to accept?
- Clearly it is important to you to do good work; how can I help you to make sure it is exceptional?
- Help me understand what makes you think I am too picky.
But on second thought, no. I think the questions might be the continuation of point #2:
- If you are not willing to take feedback and use it, we may have a problem. We can talk about what I can do differently to make that easier for you.
I really think the first order of business is to be unequivocally clear about what is and what is not okay with you. You are the boss and no one else can do it for you. If you don’t do it now, your new DDR will just keep pushing you around until you have no influence over the quality of his work. And you will have allowed it to happen.
Harsh? Probably. There are very few things we have control over in life, but this situation is one of them.
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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