Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a few people on my team that can’t take feedback. They aren’t bad employees, but when I try to give them constructive feedback they curl up in an emotional ball. I even had an employee walk out of the room and go home for the day because they couldn’t handle the feedback. I wasn’t firing them or even putting them on a performance plan. My friends tell me to chalk it up to sensitive “Millennials” and “Zoomers.” It’s true that many of them are junior members of the team, and I’m not sure what to do.
Thanks for your question. The first thing I’ll say is I don’t think your friends are helping you much. Labeling someone according to their generation doesn’t solve the problem of them lacking skills to receive feedback. And these are not the first generations to get defensive in the face of feedback. I find that many people, old and young, struggle with feedback, especially when it’s unexpected. Here are a few insights I hope will help.
Convey Good Intent
People don’t get defensive because of what you are telling them, they get defensive because of why they think you are telling them. The only way the other person will feel psychologically safe enough to stay in that conversation is if they believe you (1) care about what they care about and (2) care about and respect them as a person. At the start of the conversation, share your good intent. In your statement of good intent, be sure to answer some of these questions they might be asking themselves:
- How is your message going to help me succeed in the ways I want to succeed?
- Are you sharing this with me to punish or blame me, or because you care about and respect me?
Have the Right Conversation
There may be a larger conversation you need to have with the people on your team. Before you deliver your feedback, you should have a conversation about how they receive feedback. You might try something like this: “I’ve noticed a pattern. There have been a few times where I tried to give you some feedback on how you did a certain task. My motive is to help you get better, not criticize or punish you. But when I shared the feedback, you stopped talking or started crying. I’d really like to understand where you are coming from. How do you see these situations?”
Define Your Worth
This tip is not to help you deliver feedback, but rather for anyone who receives feedback—which is everyone. When someone gives us feedback, or tries to hold us accountable, or initiates a Crucial Conversation, we often instinctively defend ourselves, especially when the feedback is not delivered well. On our worst days, we hear the feedback and melt down in hurt, shame, or anger. That’s when it’s time to do what my friend Joseph Grenny suggests: retake your pen.
Think of your “pen” as the power to define your worth. When you hold your pen, you author the terms of your story: is your worth intrinsic to you or is it about how you look? Is it contingent on what you achieve or how many people admire you? Whoever holds your pen can compose the terms of your wellbeing. Some days you feel in full possession of your pen no matter what is happening; your personal security comes from an enduring sense of your innate worth and not from others’ opinions of you.
Other times it’s a struggle to hold onto your pen and stay anchored in your values amid a storm of feedback and opinions—especially when we believe that feedback threatens our psychological safety or worth.
We can remind ourselves of our capacity to secure our own safety and define our own worth, even while seeking the truth in tough feedback we receive. It’s a personal process, but it’s the foundation of being able to show up strong in a feedback conversation.
Perhaps you can share this with your employees when you have your next conversation about how they process feedback.