Telling someone they “don’t take feedback well” doesn’t count as performance feedback

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Perhaps the most common “performance feedback” is, “You need to take performance feedback better.” I’d say about 90% of all employees in the world fear this “feedback.” That’s because performance feedback of this nature is inherently unfair, and it isn’t performance feedback anyway. Let’s take a look at why this is so.

The context for the dreaded, “You don’t take feedback well” is usually during a feedback session to an employee, and the employee reacts negatively in some way to the feedback. Some sample negative reactions by the employee may be the following:

–Saying, “I don’t agree with the feedback”

–Saying, “That doesn’t make any sense.”

–Saying, “I’ve never heard that feedback before.”

–Saying, “Whatever.”

–Saying, “I tried really hard.”

–Saying, “You’re a terrible boss!”

–Shutting down, getting angry or otherwise reacting emotionally

In each of these cases, the employee is reacting to the feedback in a way that makes it uncomfortable to the manager providing the feedback. Then the manager may, at that instance, or in a second feedback session, say, “You need to take performance feedback better.”

OK, manager – this is more “feedback” to the employee, but it is not performance feedback. And managers should consider refraining from giving this “feedback” for the following reasons:

1. This feedback is not related to the original performance

When a manager gives performance feedback, the performance that the original feedback was designed to improve is what is important. This secondary feedback, “You need to take feedback better”, is, by definition, external to the performance of the original conversation. So which is more important? Is it the performance of the employee you want to improve, or is it how the employee reacts to performance feedback that is important? If the manager is serious about improving performance of the employee, the manager needs to keep the focus about the actual performance and behaviors that need to change. The manager subverts this focus by transitioning to the feedback conversation.

2. Don’t assume the employee won’t incorporate the original feedback

Sure, the employee has reacted negatively to the feedback, but is it certain that the employee won’t actually incorporate the alternate behaviors that the manager’s feedback is trying to guide toward? It’s a short-sighted manager who thinks that when an employee is surprised, reacts emotionally, or lashes out, that it also means they won’t take into account the feedback. Does the manager really have the knowledge the original feedback won’t be incorporated? No.

The best way to determine whether an employee “takes feedback well” is if, during the next opportunity to perform, the employee actually changes the behaviors in some way to behaviors recommended by the feedback.

If the employee actually does change what they do as a result of the feedback session, how much does it matter that the employee reacted negatively at the moment of receiving feedback? It is natural that someone reacts initially to feedback in a negative manner (especially if feedback is given rarely) that a manager should not be surprised when this happens. Attempts to mitigate this negative reaction with “You don’t take feedback well” actually reveals that the manager does not give feedback well. It’s the manager’s reaction to the reaction that shows who “doesn’t take feedback well,” because the manager suddenly diverts the conversation from the performance that original feedback is designed to improve, and it’s the manager’s performance in giving feedback that has proven to be lessened.

So remember, if the employee actually incorporates the feedback, then you are more likely to get that improved performance originally sought after.

3. It’s about the manager’s ego and not the employee’s performance.

When a manager says, “You don’t take feedback well”, this means that the manager is looking for a short-cut to giving performance feedback. The manager’s ego perhaps says, “I can give out feedback so well that employees will not react negatively!” What happens when the employee doesn’t react well? It shatters the manager’s ego. And something must be done about that! The solution? Blame the feedback recipient.

Too often, the manager gives the feedback as part of managerial duties, but does not want to handle any of the likely repercussions about having a conversation focused on improving performance, also part of managerial duties. In this case, the manager is operating in a bubble that says, “I can dish it out, but I don’t have to take it.” In other words, the manager enters feedback conversations with the implication, “I can give performance feedback in such a superior fashion that the employee will immediately say, ‘Yes, I agree and I will incorporate it.’” And when the employee doesn’t react in this way, does it necessarily mean that something is wrong with the employee? Reacting with “You need to take feedback better” indicates that something may be wrong. . . with the manager. When a manager tells an employee they need to take feedback better, it is a form of “wishing away” a problem (the problem of the employee reacting negatively to the manager’s feedback), and this “wishing away” problem is squarely an issue with the manager.

As a result, this is an indicator that the manager is not focused on improving performance and is more concerned about the manager’s self-image.

In my next article, I’ll discuss more things that the tag “You don’t take feedback well” reveals about the manager.

 Related Articles:

Three more reasons “You don’t take feedback well” is risky performance feedback


The Art of Providing Feedback: Make it Specific and Immediate

An example of giving specific and immediate feedback and a frightening look into the alternatives

Examples of when to offer thanks and when to offer praise

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: Practice sessions

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: On the job

Areas of focus in providing performance feedback based on direct observation: Tangible artifacts

What to do when you receive a customer complaint about your employee’s performance



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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


6 Responses to “Telling someone they “don’t take feedback well” doesn’t count as performance feedback”
  1. Hello there Walter:

    Way off base here, Walter.

    What you have suggested as the solution is exactly what perpetuates the interaction problem and is the classic block to correcting both performance concerns. Incidentally, this correction-error is not age-or context-specific – it’s the same error made by parent’s of a three year-old, the same error of the teacher and a 6tht grade student and the same for a 45 yr old employee).

    Technical performance feedback (the originating technical performance concern) and Interpersonal Performance (how the individual responds to correction/feedback as suggested in your examples) are separate performance issues in need of distinct performance management conversations. The stated manager reaction/retort, in your example, namely “You don’t take feedback very well” has a low probability of being effective in the immediate or long-term for performance change or relationship improvement.

    But, if I recall correctly your past commentary on Performance Feedback; applying the same strategies in a separate conversation concerned with “response to feedback, observations, suggestions, correction or change” would have a high probability of improving the Technical Performance concern and Interpersonal Performance of receptivity to feedback.

    Dick Baron

  2. Hi Dick,

    I think that we might be in agreement here, and you provide some excellent clarifications. I like your distinction between “Technical Performance Feedback” and “Interpersonal Performance Feedback.” The point behind the article is that many managers jump directly from providing Technical Performance Feedback to giving Interpersonal Performance Feedback, muddying the feedback conversation. . .in the same conversation. I advocate that the manager focus on the Technical Performance when giving Technical Performance Feedback. I also agree that if someone reacts negatively to receiving Technical Performance Feedback, this may be an interpersonal issue that should be addressed as a separate issue. However, when a manager immediately jumps to the Interpersonal Feedback, they’re focusing on a “performance” that has occurred only within the feedback conversation with the manager. So the interpersonal issue is between the employee and the manager, not necessarily the employee and their work colleagues in the production of deliverables. To earn the tag of “Doesn’t take feedback well”, and to be deserving of a separate feedback conversation, I would want this “doesn’t take feedback well” behavior to be observed outside the context of an employee/manager technical performance feedback conversation. This way, the interpersonal feedback is based on an “interpersonal performance” that affects the creation of work deliverables, not just the relationship between the manager and the employee. As such, the manager’s ego is not something that has to be taken into account.

    I agree with you that interpersonal feedback is an important thing that a manager should address, and, as you state, it should be a separate conversation. The article warns against a manager muddying a technical feedback conversation with a quick transition to “you don’t take feedback well” in the same conversation, as is often observed (and if feedback is given sporadically, the more likely the resistance on the employee’s part). When this happens, it can be argued that the manager isn’t taking the “feedback” from the employee (in whatever resistance is shown) well. During that technical feedback conversation, the manager should continue to focus on the technical feedback, note the form of resistance, and track for whether this is observed in other work contexts and affecting other job deliverables, and provide interpersonal feedback as necessary to help achieve better job performance, not just to achieve smoother feedback conversations with the manager.

  3. Right on Walter…thanks for the clarification.



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