Last month, we published an article entitled Giving Feedback – How to Reduce Pushback. That article provided concrete recommendations about how to initiate employee feedback discussions in a way that minimizes resistance to feedback. We emphasized ways to provide corrective (or “redirecting”) feedback in a manner that (1) avoids giving advice and (2) refrains from speculating about “why” someone has behaved in a particular way. We also gave examples of ways to:
- Describe observable behavior that you would like a person to change.
- Describe the impact that this behavior created for you or others.
Despite following these “best practices,” some people will still resist feedback! This often happens because most of us learned to resist feedback when we were young children. We observed how our parents and other adults responded to criticism. If we had siblings, we sometimes blamed a sibling or used other self-defense strategies. Many of us continue to use defensive strategies in adulthood that developed at a much younger age.
Five Common Tactics of People Who Resist Feedback
In a document we wrote a few years ago, LaMountain & Associates identified ten distinct strategies that people often use when they resist “constructive” feedback. We will limit the discussion here to five of the most common tactics:
- Avoidance – Being silent or “shutting down.” Not asking questions or making any commitments.
- Change of Subject – Steering the conversation to someone elses’ behavior or another topic.
- Counter-Attack – Criticizing (or questioning) the person providing the feedback.
- Excuse-Making – Explaining away behavior as being caused by external circumstances.
- Superficial Acceptance – Pretending to agree – with no intention of doing anything differently.
In our article on Giving Feedback – How to Reduce Pushback, we described a person named Robin who was late for recent meetings. If she received her manager’s feedback well, her response might have gone like this:
You are right. I have been late for meetings twice now, and it is up to me
to change in the future. I understand how this affected you.
I promise to be on time from now on.”
However, let’s see how Robin’s manager might handle her response if she used any of the five most common tactics of resistance to feedback.
How to Handle Resistance to Feedback
1. Avoidance – If Robin just sits there silently, without responding to the feedback, the manager might say, “I’m not sure exactly how to interpret your silence. Please tell me what you just heard me say and then let me know what you think about it.”
2. Change of Subject – Let’s assume that Robin says, “I guess I have been late a couple of times. But, how about all the things I’ve been doing well?” The manager can reply, “Yes, Robin, there are many things that you are doing well. Yet, for now, I need to hear what I can expect from you when it comes to arriving at our meetings on time.”
3. Counter–Attack – Among peers, the counter-attack often has the receiver accusing the person giving feedback of doing the same thing (e.g., “You’re one to talk. You are often late yourself.”). When the feedback is coming from the person’s manager, the counter-attack is usually more subtle. So, let’s assume that Robin suggests that the manager might be selectively “picking on her.” If she says, “Joe is often late for meetings and I haven’t heard you address that,” the manager can redirect the discussion back to Robin’s behavior. He could say, “I prefer to have this kind of conversation in private. My feedback to your coworkers happens in private, as well. So, let’s get back to what I can expect from you the next time we have a scheduled meeting.”
4. Excuse-Making – This is probably the most common form of resistance to feedback. Let’s assume that Robin offers “plausible reasons” why she was late for a meeting. For example, she might say, “I was planning to be here on time. But I was working on a request from one of our customers and it took longer than I expected.” While this excuse seems like it may be legitimate, the manager should dig deeper: “So, you were responding to a customer. Was it an urgent matter that had to be resolved before we started our meeting?” Let’s assume that she says, “Well, I guess the situation was not actually urgent. But, this WAS one of our customers… and I like to be responsive to customers.” At that point, Robin and her manager could discuss how she could have handled the customer request and still made it to the meeting on time.
5. Superficial Acceptance -This form of resistance is often the most subtle kind and it may take some time to show its face. For example, Robin may say, “I guess I need to be more careful about getting to our meetings on time. I’ll have to set up a better reminder system than the one I have been using.” While Robin’s response may sound encouraging, it is not clear how committed she is to changing her behavior. When someone says “I guess” or “I’ll try,” it usually does not suggest that the feedback has made a strong impact. The manager might want to ask, “What kind of reminder system have you been using? And, what changes can you make to help ensure that you get to meetings on time in the future?”
Managers Benefit from Practice and Support
Even if you use good strategies for giving feedback, it does not always guarantee that employees will accept the feedback and change their behaviors. Giving and receiving feedback requires lots of practice and skill development.
Providing feedback is one of the most difficult tasks for managers. If you are encountering resistance to feedback or need help with especially difficult pushback, please give us a call. The talent management experts at LaMountain & Associates are happy to offer an initial free 30-minute consultation about performance feedback and related topics.