When Constructive Feedback Goes Wrong: What to Do When The Listener Disagrees or Gets Upset

by David Lee

originally published in TLNT.com • January 28, 2014

What you do when you give an employee feedback and they disagree or get upset with you is one of THE most important managerial moments-of-truth to master.

If you handle this poorly, the employee might comply, but they are likely to leave the conversation distrusting your judgment, losing respect for you, and feeling resentful.

If you handle it well, not only will you get better performance, you will strengthen your relationship with them — and therefore increase their engagement level moving forward.


9 Ways to Turn a Feedback Problem Around

Here are nine (9)  recommendations to turn a “feedback gone bad” situation around.

1. If you get the feeling that they don’t agree with your feedback or appear to be getting upset, but they’re not saying anything, invite them to talk.

Example: “Claire, I get the feeling* that you disagree with what I’m saying. Can you tell me what you’re thinking?”


2. Don’t simply amp up your argument and try to convince them through brute force. Ask them questions; find out why they perceive the situation the way they do.

Example: “So, you feel like you’re handling the account as well as possible. Can you say more about that?”


3. Give them the chance to talk. If they’re upset, give them time to vent. If they’re really emotional, they won’t be able to take in what you’re saying or think rationally until they get to tell their story.

4. Paraphrase your understanding of what you understand their perception to be. Do this so they know you “get it, ” or if you discover that you didn’t “get it,” they can help you understand what they were saying.

Example #1: “Cal, I want to make sure I get your take on this… you feel my take on this whole initiative thing we’ve been talking about is wrong… you feel like you do show initiative, do next steps without having to be told, go the extra mile, etc …”

Example #2: “Roger, it sounds like what you’re saying is that you thought ___ was a priority rather than ___ which I thought I had communicated.”


5. Acknowledge their position or point of view.

Example #1: “I know you see it very differently.”

Example #2: “If, after discussing the situation, they still disagree with your perception — “I know there probably isn’t anything I can say at this point that will change your mind.”


6. Acknowledge that it’s unpleasant for them to receive negative feedback or to be subjected to an evaluation they disagree with. Be sure to use a “we’re equals” tone of voice and not a patronizing, superior tone of voice.

Example #1: “For what it’s worth Terry, I know it’s a drag to get negative feedback from your new supervisor when your former one gave you the impression that everything was great.”

Example #2: “You know Max, I can understand why you’re upset, given that you don’t agree with my feedback. To be honest, I’d be just as frustrated as you are if I was in your situation…”


7. Remind them, using a conversational tone — and not in a preachy or “I am the boss” way —  that you are accountable to your employer for setting standards and deciding whether they are achieving them, just as they would be if they were your supervisor. Include the reality that, while they have a right to disagree with your perception, they still need to meet your expectations.

Example: “Charlie, I hear you loud and clear that you disagree with my assessment of how you handle customer complaints. However, as you know, part of my responsibility is to evaluate each team member’s performance to the best of my ability … just as you would be required to do with me if you were my supervisor. So, while I know it’s a drag to feel like you’re being evaluated inaccurately, this is where I stand after giving it a lot of thought and taking into consideration what you’ve said. While we can agree to disagree in terms of perception, whether you think I’m off base or not, I still need you to meet the performance expectations I outlined…”


8. For issues that relate to interactions with others, involve them in detective work to see if they observe what you’re noticing. Ask them to see if they notice what you said is happening. Let them know that you would be interested in hearing about what they observed.

Example #1: “It seems like we’re at a place where we see things quite differently. I see you as needing to contribute in team meetings in a more positive way rather than making sarcastic remarks about people’s ideas and the other things we talked about, and you’re feeling like you already do contribute in a positive way.”

Example #2: “Here’s what I’d like to ask you to do: how about if you pay attention to how you interact in our meetings for the next few months and notice whether what you say helps others or puts them down, notice if you offer solutions when you say something won’t work, or even if you say an idea won’t work, notice how you do it. Is it in a dismissive way or do you challenge people in an upbeat, respectful way to think it through more clearly. How about if you sort of watch yourself in action and I’ll do the same? If I see an example of what we’ve been talking about, I’ll bring it up after the meeting so you know more clearly what I’m talking about. If neither of us notice anything, then that’s great… we won’t have to have this conversation again.”


9. Demonstrate good will by keeping an open mind, and letting them know you will, especially if the other person has brought up some valid points that put your perspective in a new light or, if there is room for doubt for whatever reason.

Example: “You know Jim, although I was pretty clear coming in here about how I saw this situation, you brought up some valid points, so let’s both of us keep a closer eye on this. I’d like to ask you to especially pay attention to _____ and I’ll do my part to notice when you’re right on track and give you immediate feedback if I see an example of what I was talking about. How’s that sound?”

Enough from me; What about you?

  • What have you found useful when dealing with someone who either gets defensive or just disagrees with your feedback (especially when they are a direct report)?
  • What questions do you have that you would like answered? (I’ll try to answer as many as possible in the comments below and hopefully others will contribute also.)
  • What aspects of giving feedback do you find challenging or puzzling? (Again, I’ll try to address them and hopefully others will do also.)