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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

My Employee Won’t Respond to Feedback but Needs to ASAP

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do I help an employee become more organized and productive when she does not respond well to constructive criticism? We have talked about this several times, but I cannot seem to help her find a productive way of working. It’s almost like she enjoys being frantic and unproductive. Any suggestions?

Trying to Help

Dear Trying,

It’s tough to be in the orbit of someone who is frantic and disorganized. It’s even more challenging when they’re unwilling to see how their behavior impacts others. However, I’ll start by acknowledging that your team member’s response to your critique is pretty common.

Several years ago, we surveyed 455 people to better understand how they respond to harsh feedback. Unsurprisingly, we found that 9 out of 10 said they were shocked and stunned when they received harsh feedback. The interesting data surfaced when we asked people whether they’d welcome the feedback if it were delivered in a careful and compassionate way. And what we found is that it would make little difference in their reaction. No matter how well feedback is delivered, it still leaves a painful and lasting impression—it’s still hard to hear.

I don’t share this data to excuse your team member’s behavior, but rather to help us better understand it. As a manager, assume that criticism – however constructive it may be – will likely be difficult for your team member to hear. Expecting an emotional or defensive reaction can help you better prepare for the Crucial Conversation.

And here are a few skills you’ll want to use when confronting your team member about their frantic and unproductive behavior.

Make it safe. Knowing that your team member is going to react defensively to the criticism, you need to be extra diligent in creating and maintaining safety in the conversation. An underlying principle of safety in dialogue is understanding that people don’t get defensive because of what you’re saying, but rather because of why they think you’re saying it.

It’s likely they’ll gloss over the specific feedback about their working style and assume you think they’re incompetent. They may feel their job is on the line. Or maybe they’re already aware they struggle in this area and your criticism further confirms they are a failure.

Because safety is more about your intent, than your content, you can nip these distracting assumptions in the bud by starting the conversation with a statement about your good intent.

You can identify your good intent by asking yourself a few questions: What is it I really want here? And not just for me, but what do I want for them and for our relationship? So, given the context you’ve shared, your good intent might sound something like this:

“I would really like to see you succeed in your role here because I see a lot of potential in your skills and ability. The team really values your experience and what you bring to the table. There is one area where if you made some adjustments, would really help you achieve that potential and provide even more value to the team. Would you be open to some coaching?”

Now, making it safe is rarely a one-and-done skill. You must continually monitor for safety throughout your Crucial Conversation. As you begin sharing the feedback, and you start to notice safety is at risk—perhaps emotions are escalating, or they are beginning to shut down—you need to step out of the conversation and reestablish safety. You can do that with a contrasting statement which is to clarify what you don’t intend (which addresses their concerns) with what you do intend (which reiterates your good intent). It might sound like:

“I don’t intend to make you feel like you’re failing at your job. I do want to help you improve the way you manage your work so you can be less stressed and more effective in your role.”

You may have to reestablish safety several times. But if you do the work to make it safe, they should be willing to hear nearly anything from you—someone who has their best interest in mind.

Stick to the facts. Feedback is only as useful as it is actionable. When you share vague feedback like “You are frantic and unproductive,” it sounds less like feedback and more like a criticism of some character flaw. So before having the Crucial Conversation, identify specific behaviors and moments that validate your concern. For example:

  • Don’t say: You’re unproductive.
  • Do say: Last week, you spent two days working on the Acme proposal. That proposal should have taken just a few hours.
  • Don’t say: You’re frantic.
  • Do say: Yesterday, when I asked you for an update on the campaign brief, your response was exasperated and intense. I got the sense you were very overwhelmed by both the project and by providing the update.
  • Don’t say: You are unorganized.
  • Do say: In our one-on-one meetings, you struggle to provide a clear picture of what you’re actively working on.

You get the idea. Don’t come in with charged conclusions; be sure to provide concrete evidence that will illuminate their blind spots.

Diagnose and solve accordingly. Sounds like your repeated attempts to offer feedback and coaching haven’t led to a change in behavior. You’ll want to help diagnose the performance gap by first considering whether this is a motivation problem or an ability problem.

Do they know how to be more organized and less frantic? Are they aware of what to do? If not, then they have an ability gap. You can help them close that gap with training or coaching in productivity skills. Our Getting Things Done course (and book) can help with this ability challenge.

If it’s a motivation problem, try motivating them to action by sharing natural consequences. Kindly let them know how their behavior impacts you, their teammates, and results. Perhaps they can’t see how their mode of operation affects others. Bringing that to light could be a powerful motivator to change.

I suspect however, that they aren’t finding pleasure and joy in their frenzy and disorganization. I doubt they know what to do to be more organized. It’s more likely they’ve simply developed poor habits around managing their work. I bet you’ll discover this is an ability gap and something you can help them address with training and support.

I hope these skills will help you coach your team member through tough behavior change. Your ability to do so with candor and respect will make all the difference.


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

6 thoughts on “My Employee Won’t Respond to Feedback but Needs to ASAP”

  1. Elizabeth

    Yes; when I read that the questioner thinks the employee “enjoys being frantic and unproductive,” I immediately thought “ability or motivation?”

    So I agree with everything you’ve said–but I also see one additional consideration for the manager to explore. Could this be a case of different working styles or neurodiversity? Some workers with ADHD, for example, may struggle to focus when expected to fit into the mold of what someone else thinks is “organized,” but can still be effective workers if they find their own strategies for managing their work.

    It’s possible that this employee truly is unproductive, but if the manager truly wants to help, they will need to be clear on the difference between the required standards for the work, from an objective point of view, and “how I would have done it.” Perhaps it would help, somewhere along the line, to ask the employee something like “What can I do as a supervisor to help you do your best work?”

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you for surfacing this consideration. As a manger, I have to constantly ask myself if my direct report is doing it wrong, or simply differently than I would. There is nothing wrong with different, assuming results still follow. I like your management approach in this case. Thank you.

  2. Jami Holbert

    I appreciate the previous comment regarding ADHD. I have this issue and am implementing work arounds to assist me with organization. When asked for status updates on the fly, I often struggle. It works better if the request is made by email and I can have a few minutes to think about how to respond to provide concise information regarding the status without extraneous information which can be confusing and lead the requestor to think I am not on top of the situation.

  3. Rachel

    I have been working on coaching a team member on organization skills for some time. I need to be careful as I show best practices to tell them “this works for me. Lets work together on finding the best method that works for you.”

  4. Britney

    +1 to the ADHD comments. 👊💕

  5. Peter Clark

    Well written article. Thoughtful and helpful insights in the comments.

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