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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

My Younger Employees Won’t Accept Feedback. What Can I Do?

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.

Confused Coach

Dear Confused,

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.

Good luck,

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

7 thoughts on “My Younger Employees Won’t Accept Feedback. What Can I Do?”

  1. Silver Fern

    I don’t see anything about how you are contributing to the problem, only blaming the person who has less power than you. Maybe you’re not very good at giving feedback? Where’s your performance plan?
    Either improve your hiring process to avoid the problem in the first place, or put forward your own performance plan along with your employee’s, and face the same consequence as them if it doesn’t work.

  2. Jenn

    every individual responds differently, but as a group, this happens more often than any other group.

    one millennial we had made many spelling and punctuation errors on a document. my coworker marked up or highlighted the errors, and gave it back to him to correct. he got red in the face, shoved the paper across the table back at her, and told her she should fix it. she informed him that it’s protocol that employees fix their own mistakes. he came back later saying, “well i talked to my mom, and she said…” we had to explain to him that his mother doesn’t work here, and her opinion has no bearing (despite working in the same field, but not at our company). in meetings, anytime he disagreed, he would often invoke his mother’s opinions as gospel, above all other opinions in the room.

    another one created a program that had errors, and when told she needed to fix the error, said that’s what I.T. is for (she expected them to fix a program SHE wrote). that same person also would toss stuff into the trash can, miss, and leave her garbage on the floor. when confronted, she said that’s what the janitorial staff was for.

    these incidents make it difficult for seasoned employees to want to work with the younger generation due to their flippant attitude. many have said (myself included) that they would rather complete a project on their own than collaborate with them.

    this applies to anyone with a bad attitude at work, but once their reputations start going around the office, they’ll often be isolated because no one will talk to them unless absolutely necessary, and they are often not included in the information loop. this also hurts their chances of advancing, but they don’t seem to care because none them stay beyond a few years anyway. they are uninterested in making connections at work, they just use their current position to gain experience and leverage it to catapult themselves to a higher paying position every few years.

    we have had a handful of millennials grow and stay here, but they are often a rarity. if someone’s resume has a different job every 1.5 – 2 years, i don’t even bother, no matter what their qualifications are.

  3. healinghealthcaresolutions

    I think it is “crucial” to understand the specialty in industry, medicine, etc that you providing feedback. In the military, rank and command sitpulates the feeddback and in a war, “there is no touchy feeling feedback”.. it is comnand and deliver. In healthcare ie a trauma unit, ER, unit, one delivers orders under life saving conditions in quick rapid fire methods and afterwards, a “do one, talk one” comes into play on the style of feedback and method of delivery. As a very successful corporate executive and college professor and also in a second career of “saving lives” and Gulf Wars, each area of expertise and mentoring and couseling
    employees dictates the culture, how information is communicated, I think race, gender and religious demands certain sensitivites especially with Genz/MIllineals and in healthcare we are working with 5 generations and it has been a huge struggle. There is also an unspoken factor that most corporate Fortune 500 companies are NOT PREPARED to handle and that is that there are a fair amount of psychologically undiagnosed or employees no med compliant whose behavior and response to crucial critiques are inappropriate and at times results in violence, and various forms of psychological dysfunctions. There are numerous scholarly research articles and tomes on these issues. There is no QUICK FIX
    for a Crucial Conversations.

  4. James Brown

    I agree with the first comment that as coaches we should always analyze how we’re giving feedback. Did we set expectations prior to the feedback so they understood the expectation? Is the person unwilling or are they unable? Do we give a mix of positive and constructive coaching? Or do we just point out when something is wrong? One suggestion I give new coaches is to look every day for a week for something their employees are doing well and be specific when addressing it. “I really appreciated the extra work you did on that project. It made a difference in what we were able to provide to our customers.” If you do that consistently for a week then next week the person will be more open to suggestions for improvement. Accountability is recognizing when people achieve an expectation as much as it is being critical if they don’t.

  5. Sarah R,

    I appreciate the commenter who mentioned specific work environments that require terse communication; e.g., military operations, hospital ERs, etc. Assuming that Confused Coach is operating in a less critical work environment, it’s not clear if the constructive feedback is being delivered to employees individually or as a team. If it’s the latter, that could be the problem — nobody wants to be called out in front of their peers. Also, I think Justin’s advice regarding intent is incomplete. In my organization, we track errors and we follow up with the employees who make them. We emphasize that our intent is to MAKE THE PROCESS BETTER and we need employees’ input to identify the core issue(s) and implement a solution, whether it be conducting additional training, reassigning tasks, improving communication, looking for ways to automate key steps, or a combination thereof. We also respect employees’ privacy and safety; with few exceptions, only an employee’s direct manager speaks with an employee about an error they made. That way, people don’t have to worry about being confronted by colleagues or other managers.

  6. Ronni Talmadge, CPCS, CPMSM

    So important that you mention unable to take feed back is not an age thing. I try to lighten things up “ break out the tissues , we have issues” or “there is no crying in baseball’ the bottom line is to try to do whatever will help the employee grow and be a better member of the team. I always appreciate crucial skills

  7. C. P.

    I think there’s two pieces missing here – and the first is what your interactions with the employee are on a day to day basis. No matter how positive your intent and communication are to help them, if you spend the majority of your time being terse or negative to the employee directly, they are going to have negative feelings to begin with and the feedback situation is going to go worse.

    The second is about showing understanding for your younger employees. Is this their first job? Are they early in their careers? They may not know how to deal with feedback in a positive way. If you’ve got the kind of relationship where you can talk to them about it, you’ll likely find out that they may not know how to take feedback and become embarrassed or ashamed quickly. Other people might have mental health disorders that cause them to internalize negative feedback quickly. Other people might need a different style of feedback delivery – I like my boss to review early and give feedback often so I can fix things in the moment and not at the end of a project with retroactive feedback where I can’t do anything about my mistakes. Other people might find that terrifying.

    In both of these pieces, its about looking past the labels and getting to know them as people. I think you’ll grow as a coach too.

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