Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Giving Feedback to Defensive Employees

Dear Authors,

How do you deal with someone who, when caught in the act of doing something wrong or inconsiderate, responds by getting angry with you and leaving you with the notion that you are really the one who’s got a problem?

She’s Rubber and I’m Glue

Dear Glue,

To answer this question, let’s walk through an example. Let’s say that your assistant agrees to be at her desk by 8:00 A.M., which is when your business starts coming to life. In spite of this clear understanding, she frequently arrives between 8:15 and 8:45 A.M. You decide to bring up the issue and here’s what happens:

You: “I noticed you arrived at 8:30 this morning. You agreed to be here at 8:00 and yet you weren’t.”

Her: “Why are you always on my case? You don’t mention the things I do well—you act as though if I’m a couple of minutes late I’m a total loser. Why are you so controlling?”

So, there we have it. You raised the issue, and she got defensive and acted as if you were the problem. What’s wrong with this picture? What should you do now? Or what should you have done differently?

The problem with how you approached the infraction is that you raised a “content” issue when this is really a “pattern” problem. You opened the conversation by referring to the most recent instance of the problem. That allowed your assistant to focus on that and act as if you were exaggerating the concern. Here’s how you would have opened the conversation at the “pattern” level:

You: “I’d like to chat with you about a pattern that I think is creating some problems. My goal is to ensure we work effectively together, not put you on the spot or attack you personally. Would that be okay?”

Her: “What’s the problem?”

You: “A month ago you and I talked about how important is for you to arrive by 8:00 A.M. In the past three weeks you have arrived at 8:15 or later more than half the time. It seemed that you agreed that the 8 A.M. arrival was important when we spoke before and were committed to making it by then or calling me in advance to negotiate an alternative. That hasn’t happened. My concern is not that you arrived late this morning, but that you are not keeping your commitment. Can we talk about that?”

From this point forward in the conversation, you must ensure that your assistant does not lead the conversation back to why she was late this morning. That is not the issue you are raising. You are talking about her pattern of failure to live up to her commitments. By talking about the right issue, you decrease the likelihood of her minimizing the problem as before—or turning it around on you. It’s not a guarantee—but it helps.

Now, let’s say you started with the right issue but your assistant still becomes defensive and tries to take you away from the issue at hand.

The challenge here is the same. Move to the right issue. When the issue is no longer her late arrival, but her taking the focus off her own problems, move the conversation there. However, you must remember to make it safe. For example:

Her: “Why are you always on my case? You don’t mention the things I do well—you act as though if I’m a couple of minutes late I’m a total loser. Why are you so controlling?”

You: “I’d like to talk about what just happened. My concern is that I’m raising a performance problem with you, and you’re not allowing me to discuss it. It seems you’re changing the subject by referring to my weaknesses and minimizing the problem I just raised. That doesn’t work for me as a way of solving the problem. I’d like to ask that we stay focused on one issue and try to come to agreement about it before raising another. Would that be okay?”

I hope these ideas are useful.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

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