How to Navigate Negative Reactions to Employee Feedback

More companies are beginning to embrace and encourage ongoing feedback conversations. They can be a great way to help employees feel seen and valued, keep them engaged, and help them do — and want to do — their best work.

While giving constructive or difficult feedback is just as important for an employee’s development as giving positive feedback is — it’s also important to be prepared if the employee reacts negatively, or isn’t receptive to what you have to say. It’s important to keep in mind what state the employee is in, if they’re dealing with something on a personal level that could be escalating their reaction, and if there have been changes in the company that have been challenging for them to deal with. It’s always important to show empathy, make the conversation a two-way dialogue so that you’re working together towards a solution, and reiterate that you are there to support their growth — your candor and authenticity will show them that you want to help them improve.

Worrying about an employee’s reaction to feedback shouldn’t prevent you from giving it when it’s timely and necessary. Navigating tough feedback is just a matter of learning how to recognize and respond to an employee’s reaction.

Some examples of common negative reactions to receiving hard feedback are:

  • The person becomes defensive and challenges you
  • They are shocked and angry, or become emotional and argumentative
  • They are non-committal and reluctant to accept your input

So, in what ways do these reactions to employee feedback show up — and how can you appropriately and effectively respond?

1. Acting defensive and challenging you

Feedback conversations can quickly become uncomfortable if the person on the receiving end makes excuses, rationalizes, or questions the validity of what you’re saying. They may say that they disagree with your input, or deny that they know what you’re talking about. In this case, it’s important to keep in mind how you should and shouldn’t respond:

Do:

  • Remain calm and collected
  • Stay the course and provide specific examples to support your feedback
  • Focus on measurable behaviors and results and how this is impacting their colleagues and the company
  • Suggest giving them time to reflect further on the feedback and schedule a time to meet again later

Don’t:

  • Show irritation or surprise at their response
  • Back down from giving the necessary feedback, just for the sake of minimizing their reaction
  • Make the feedback feel like it’s a personal attack on them or has to do fundamentally with who they are as a person

2. Acting shocked or angry

You may have a feedback conversation in which the employee becomes very emotional, says things impulsively, or is too taken aback to be receptive to your feedback. In situations where an employee is argumentative and upset, here are some best practices on how you should and shouldn’t respond, so the conversation doesn’t get derailed:

Do:

  • Restate your feedback with clear and concrete examples
  • Acknowledge with the employee that the feedback can be challenging to hear
  • Understand that — in some worst case scenarios — the employee will simply not acknowledge the feedback, or improve their behavior/performance, no matter what you say or do

Don’t:

  • Match their emotional state or direct their anger back at them
  • Apologize for the feedback

3. Being non-committal about addressing the feedback

Sometimes, employees are reluctant to really understand or respond to your feedback. If you sense that they’re not truly embracing the input you’re giving them, and that they won’t bring forth the focus and commitment to make the necessary changes to their behavior or performance — here are some ideas of how to respond to them:

Do:

  • Help them come up with an action plan — focus on tangible steps the employee can take to improve and develop
  • Keep the conversation moving forward
  • Commit to continuing to give them beneficial feedback

Don’t:

  • Match their noncommittal attitude
  • Demand immediate commitment from them

Research shows that employees want feedback. 87% of employees report they want job development, but only ⅓ are receiving the feedback they need. Part of being truly committed to your team’s growth and development is giving timely and necessary feedback — even when it might be hard for them to hear. Employees may not always be as receptive to feedback as you hoped they would — but that doesn’t mean the input shouldn’t be shared. It’s always important to consider how someone might react to your feedback, and be ready in advance to navigate that reaction.