The Difficult Conversations Series – Can’t take Feedback, Won’t Take Feedback

Hi I’m Nicola from The People Mentor. In today’s podcast, I want to talk about an aspect of difficult conversations that has probably driven you up the wall plenty of times; giving feedback to someone who can’t, or won’t, take it.  

This podcast is going to be a little different.  

In it, I’m going to answer a question that someone has asked me about an issue they’re having with someone in their team. Hopefully, you will relate and take something helpful away today.  

I remember being the office agony aunt many a time when I was a manager. Other managers and team members would often come and ask me for advice or opinions on something, and it has prepared me well for being the business and team troubleshooter that I am today!  

So here goes… 

Today’s question is from someone I spoke to recently about an issue they were having with a team member.  

“ Hi, Nicola. 

I currently have a team member who’s a graphic designer. My business has been tasked with producing a brochure for a client. The issue I’m having is that the team member has paid no attention to the client brief and won’t listen to constructive feedback. I met with him 121 to give him feedback from the client and he argued with every point. As a result, I don’t feel listened to, and I have an unhappy client. What would be your advice in this situation?” 

This was my advice: 

I think when someone just won’t take feedback and it’s harming the business, you have to be straight to the point. It’s easy to say, but try to take the emotion out of it and tell them that you and the client don’t feel listened to.  

Explain that you are giving them the courtesy of telling them why the client is not happy because you appreciate the work they do and want to resolve the situation.  

The key is thinking about what you want to get out of the conversation before you get into it. You also need to consider what happens if the team member still won’t accept the feedback or the client decides they are pulling the plug on the project, and it harms the business. This is not an easy situation, but you need to be prepared.  

In my 30 years of management, I’ve heard about (and experienced) countless situations like this.  

A manager tries to give reasonable and constructive feedback, and the person on the receiving end either acts out, shuts down, or fails to do anything about the feedback. 

“ Every time I try to give them feedback, they get defensive.” 

“ Every time we meet, they promise to do better, but nothing changes.” 

Sound familiar? 

So what’s the answer to finding a way through this no-man’s land you’ve found yourself in? 

Have you ever thought about giving feedback on how the other person receives feedback? 

If a team member’s inability to accept or act on feedback is a constant sticking point, it makes sense to have a conversation about it.  

So how would you do that? 

First of all, I’d say make it a conversation all on its own. Don’t do this in a performance review or any other performance-related 121.  

Sit down with the employee and explain that part of your job is to give feedback. At the same time, part of their job is to take your feedback seriously and deal with it professionally.  

That opens the door to you being able to explain how their resistance to feedback impacts you, the team, and the business, as well as their career if things don’t improve.  

What you need to remember is that the team member probably won’t see things the same way as you do. So don’t go in with an accusation like “ Every time I try to give you feedback, all you do is argue with me.” Instead, try expressing your opinion and asking about theirs by saying something like “ When I give you feedback, how do you usually feel? What sort of things are you thinking?” 

It’s important not to use language that makes the other person defensive. Ditch statements like “Whenever I give you feedback, I know you won’t listen.” This is you blaming them, and it’s judgemental. You can’t possibly know how someone is going to behave or react. Instead, say something like, “When I give you feedback, I notice that you struggle to make eye contact with me. I’d like to know what’s going on there and if there’s anything I can help with.” 

You can also try asking for feedback yourself. You have to consider the possibility that the way you give feedback is impacting their inability to receive it properly. Are you too direct or abrasive? Do you give people mixed messages so they aren’t clear on what they should and shouldn’t be doing? Ask your team member if they struggle with how you give feedback and what you can do to improve things. 

Keep in mind that receiving feedback can be tough, especially if it’s not going to be easy for the person to hear. This is where it can be helpful to share a story about when you got feedback and found it hard to accept. Talk about what you learned from the experience and how things changed for the better.  

Then after you’ve talked about the issues and hopefully understood how you both see things, now is the time to agree on the changes or improvements you’d like to see.  

Say that going forward, if you give them feedback and they feel like they don’t agree with it or see things differently, that they’ll explicitly say so.  

Agree that you’ll listen to their perspective and work together to come up with a solution that pleases you both.  

The last thing you need to do is monitor any progress or changes in how your team member receives and acts on feedback after the conversation. If you notice improvements, acknowledge them and be specific.  

Giving and receiving feedback can feel a bit like spending time in the dentist’s chair, but taking the time to have a conversation about the sticking points can help improve things.  

Like most team issues, the remedy is usually open, honest, and thoughtful communication.  

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