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How To Give Negative Performance Feedback, Part 1: When The Recipient Gets Defensive

How To Give Negative Performance Feedback, Part 1: When The Recipient Gets Defensive

Giving performance feedback can be tricky because, ideally, you want to turn the situation around but you don’t know how the person receiving the feedback will react. In this post, I’ll share suggestions for sharing negative performance feedback when you have a recipient who gets defensive. In a follow-up post, Part 2, I’ll share suggestions for a recipient who readily agrees… but then doesn’t follow through.

So how do you give negative performance feedback that results in positive change when the person you’re talking to gets defensive? Here are five questions to help ensure you’re maximizing the feedback process:

Is the feedback a surprise?

When a correction or other negative feedback is unexpected, it is often greeted with defensiveness – “I didn’t (or don’t) do that…This is the first I’ve heard of this.” If the Recipient has been working one way for a while without getting any feedback from you, then s/he might have taken your silence as approval.

[Related: Starting Right: Employee Evaluations]

This doesn’t mean that if you put up with something that you now want to change, you can’t because you missed some feedback statute of limitations. Just recognize that the longer you let something sit, the harder it can be for the Recipient to accept.

The takeaway? Give feedback more frequently than you normally do if you are managing a defensive person (or team). You may feel like weekly check-ins are enough but try biweekly (for corrections, real-time feedback is best). The more frequently you check in, the faster you can point out corrections, giving the Recipient smaller pivots to make that are less likely to cause a stir.

Are you giving the Recipient a chance to improve?

If you wait too long to give difficult feedback, you may have already resigned yourself to this being an incurable situation, and your Recipient, though it’s the first time s/he’s hearing this, may sense you’ve already given up. You interpret the Recipient as defensive to making a change, but s/he interprets your feedback as the end of the discussion, not a chance to start anew.

This doesn’t mean you have to sugar coat your message, especially if you need to share any negative repercussions (e.g., the slow performance is making the client think twice about continuing the project). Sharing bad news could actually help the situation because then the Recipient realizes it’s not just about you or even the two of you, but there are others being negatively affected.

[Related: Giving Impactful Feedback, Kindly]

The takeaway? Make sure you give feedback early enough such that the Recipient has time to turn things around. This means early enough in the project for results to get back on track, but also early enough in your relationship with the Recipient that you haven’t given up on them and they know that.

Are you giving the Recipient enough support to improve?

Another cause for defensiveness is confusion. Maybe the Recipient does accept that there needs to be a change but doesn’t know how to make that change. As the manager, you might need to provide more direction or even skills training. You might need to share more context – for example, if the Recipient needs to report things differently, who is reading this report? Knowing more about the reader can help the Recipient course-correct independently.

This doesn’t mean that you let the Recipient off the hook if you already provide training and s/he still isn’t performing. But, if you haven’t given a lot of direction before, direction may be exactly what the Recipient needs. Don’t assume that everyone prefers the hands-off manager.

The takeaway? Don’t just share the end result of what you need, but be prepared to share the process of how to get there. Also be prepared to provide support – extra time to answer questions, extra information to provide context, or extra training to develop needed skills

Have you given the Recipient enough time to process the bad news?

Defensiveness could also just be an initial reaction but, with time, a more constructive dialogue could ensue. Therefore, if you are met with pushback on your feedback and suggestions, suggest that you take a break and meet later in the day or even the next day to brainstorm suggestions for moving forward.

Another benefit to stepping back and inviting suggestions is that you make the Recipient part of the solution. People are less likely to get defensive about their own ideas!

The takeaway? Performance feedback and potential solutions don’t have to be delivered at the same time. Some people need more time than others to process bad news, but with a little patience, the initially defensive Recipient can come around.

If you’re managing a team, who exactly is getting defensive?

In a recent management workshop, one participant shared that her team as a whole gets defensive whenever she shares adjustments or corrections to projects at hand. With a team, it’s important to separate out the group v. individual dynamic. Is the team as a whole resistant to what you’re saying, or is it one (or two) members who then get the team riled up?

Even if your project is a team effort, there are individual contributions, and you want to meet individually with people to isolate exactly where the breakdown is occurring. You then want to direct your performance feedback to the individual parties because that’s where the change will need to happen.

[Related: The Purpose and Power of Positive Feedback]

The takeaway? It might seem like the whole team is reacting, but it’s a collection of individual reactions. Defensiveness needs to be addressed individually. Team meetings are great to keep everyone on the same page, but save negative performance feedback for a private setting where you can give specific direction on how to improve and where the Recipient can save face in front of their colleagues.

Getting defensive when hearing negative performance feedback doesn’t necessarily mean the Recipient will not or cannot change. Use the five questions above to help ensure you’re doing what you can as a manager to help the Recipient move past the defensiveness and into a more productive openness to change.


Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career and business coach with SixFigureStart®. Her latest book is Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career (Forbes Media, 2015). She also writes a weekly advice column on Forbes (where this post originally appeared).

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.