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What to Do When Employees Don’t Respond to Feedback

Dear Scott,

I have an employee who just won’t engage with feedback. When I do share feedback, he totally falls apart and wants to quit. He struggles with any type of criticism from me or anyone. Other managers have shared with me the same concern. How can I get him to engage?

Can’t Get Through

Dear Can’t Get Through,

I can appreciate your situation. We’ve all worked with people who don’t respond to feedback. And we’ve probably all experienced how difficult it can be to receive feedback. Even when we want feedback so that we can improve and do our best, it can be difficult to receive. It can be difficult for two reasons.

  1. We are blind to the gap. Dan Heath refers to this as “problem blindness” in his book Upstream. We are oblivious to the serious problems in our midst. We don’t see things the way others do.
  2. We don’t want there to be a gap. This may be a form of what I will call “performance delusion.” With our strong desire to be a high performer, we convince ourselves that we are one. And this contributes to our blindness of the problem. We are particularly prone to this delusion when we are producing great results but doing so in a negative way. We see the outcome not the process.

There’s an old adage that says you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And though this is true, it is also incomplete. You can’t make the horse drink, but you can salt the oats. And what happens when you salt the oats? The horse gets thirsty. And what happens when a horse gets thirsty? The horse drinks the water. So, while you can’t force someone to engage in feedback, you can look for opportunities to “salt the oats.” Let me share a few suggestions.

Get Before You Give

Engaging in feedback should be about more than helping others receive it. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, suggests that the best way to make your team more receptive to feedback is to ask for it yourself. The goal should be to build a relationship of trust and to create a culture of dialogue and feedback. Scott reminds us that this won’t happen by merely asking. You will need to be persistent to show that you really do want feedback. You will also need to be clear that you aren’t fishing for praise. You want employees to challenge you in ways that will help you be a better leader and contributor. She also says that it isn’t enough to appreciate the feedback, but that you need to praise and reward those who give it. Two-way feedback is the best kind of feedback. And when employees see you drinking the water, they are more inclined to drink themselves.

Know Before You Share

People rarely get defensive because of what you say; they get defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. Before offering feedback, ask yourself why you are sharing it and why it is helpful. Your motives should involve goals that your employee cares about, not just the goals you care about. This is called Mutual Purpose. When you get clear on your motives and have your employee’s goals in mind when sharing feedback, they are “thirstier” to receive it.

It won’t be enough for you to know your intent. You will need to declare it. When left unsaid, others are left to guess what your motives are. And people are terrible guessers. So preface your feedback with a simple declaration of intent. It might sound like this:

“Because I know you would like to be a manager someday, I want to share a few things that will help you prepare for that opportunity.”

“Let me share with you something I wish someone would have shared with me when I was in your position.”

“I know you want to work efficiently so you can avoid stress and burnout, so let’s talk about something that appears to be getting in the way.”

When others know why you are sharing feedback, they are more receptive. Many are already thirsting; they just need to know it is safe to drink.

As you strive to build a culture of feedback, ask yourself, “How can I salt the oats?” What else can you do to make people not only want feedback, but also actively seek it and share it? Remember to ask for feedback before giving it, check your motives before sharing it, and declare them when you do. If you do this I think you will start see others drink the water that you lead them to.

What else could work? Tell us what you would do in the comments.

Best of luck,

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12 thoughts on “What to Do When Employees Don’t Respond to Feedback”

  1. Merche

    I can’t read past the typo – manger instead of manager (YIKES!) PS I love your newsletters.

    1. Scott Robley

      Yikes is right. Great catch. I’m glad you enjoy our newsletters.

  2. Andrea Jessop

    Thank you for such a thoughtful article. One thing that helps me, but I also agree with doing the work you talk about first, is the simple question, “Are you open to some feedback?” So often I want to barrel in with my own agenda, and this question serves a couple of purposes. It gets them to ask themselves whether they truly are open to feedback, and a “yes” answer opens them up a bit first. Also, it gives them the option to say No, or at least, “Not right now.” Then we have an opportunity to reschedule for a time of their choosing, or at least mutually agreed on.

    1. Dave

      That’s a great way to start the feedback conversation. Thank you for sharing this.

    2. Steven Patterson

      Love this approach, Andrea. I start with that question also….every time. Only twice in 30 years have I gotten a “no” or “not right now”. And, as you state, we met when the time (and emotions) felt right.


      Steven Patterson

    3. Scott Robley

      Thanks for sharing Andrea. I love that question. Readiness is so important. Sometimes I tweak the question a bit by asking if they are “open” for some feedback,

  3. JennyG

    A lot of people are scared of feedback, both giving it and receiving it. So, perhaps your office could have a training session on how to give and receive it well. That might break the ice for “feedback” to become a good thing in your whole context! The way I do this sort of session is to discuss a short set of basic guidelines that describe giving and receiving good feedback. Then the facilitation team runs through some fun (and rather realistic!) skits to be critiqued by the group: what about how feedback was given in this situation was helpful or problematic – according to the guidelines? And what about the reception of this feedback was appropriate – and what not so good – according to the guidelines? This usually elicits some laughter as well as good discussion. We then regularly put these guidelines into practice – at the close of meetings or any situations where we are in a learning mode together. In some cases we put up posters to clearly remind ourselves of the good habits we all want to observe better. We also find situations where each person is expected to share some feedback, so that it becomes part of our normal behaviors. Anyway, with some group support, feedback can become our friend, rather than a scary unknown!

    1. Steven Patterson

      Thank you for this, Jenny G. Great tips and a format I can apply immediately. 🙂

  4. Wilma Rice

    Part of the issue might be seen in the description of the problem when the writer states “He struggles with any type of criticism from me . . . ” I try to get managers to move away from the terminology of constructive criticism because no matter how you put it, it is still seen as criticism. We all need to be using the terminology of constructive feedback which can be positive or show a need for improvement. It also helps the mindset of the one providing the feedback, moving from criticizing someone to providing feedback for improvement.

  5. Rachel

    I really appreciate the “salting the oats” suggestion. I try to phrase my comments toward “what do they need to know/hear” vs “what do I want them to do”.

  6. Sherry Black

    I’ve been listening to an audiobook entitled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck and it describes the two mindsets, one is very rigid and does not do well with feedback; these people who have a Fixed Mindset feel threatened by anyone telling they aren’t perfect, aren’t good enough. The other mindset is a Growth Mindset, those who will work with criticism as an opportunity to grow and change. There are ways to change mindsets, but it takes a directed approach. I highly recommend the book, especially for working with people who have these tendencies

  7. Trying to help, but getting nowhere? Ask Yogesh Sood

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