How Do I Fix An Employee Who Absolutely Refuses To Listen To My Feedback?

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

My research has found that 88% of employees say they would want to hear the truth if their job performance was poor. And yet, how many people do you know who actually embrace, and take to heart, tough, pointed, truthful feedback? Very few, I’ll bet. 

And it’s not just employees; bosses are also very resistant to feedback or suggestions for improvement. I recently conducted a study of 27,048 executives, managers and employees called“The Risks of Ignoring Employee Feedback.” One of the big discoveries from the study is that only 24% of people say that their leader "always" encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement, while 16% say their leader "never" does so.

And here’s the kicker; if someone thinks their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement, they’re about 12 times more likely to recommend the organization as a great place to work.

It’s clear that, in practice, people generally hate hearing the truth about their performance. So, what can you do about it?

One problem with delivering tough, truthful messages is that we can get so frustrated when our message goes unheard that we become angry with the person who is resisting our feedback. And the angrier we get, the more defensive they become. Their defensiveness, in turn, makes us even angrier, and the cycle spirals out of control.

This tells us that there are times when employing outside assistance to deliver tough feedback will help us remove ourselves emotionally and keep a cool head. Here’s an actual situation (that I recently experienced while working with a client) that demonstrates one way to do this. (Note: I’ve reconstructed the dialogue as accurately as possible based on my notes).

Mable, a director at a tech company, had been struggling to get Bob to take on work that he considered ‘outside’ his job description. When asked to take on these tasks, Bob rolled his eyes, scoffed, pointed fingers, crossed his arms, and even stormed out the door. Six months of one-on-one coaching had yielded little results, and Mable was now so angry that further individual conversations weren’t going to help.

Mable brought together her team to define some standards and expectations about ‘teamwork’ for the entire department. There are certainly situations where I would not suggest making a problem with a particular employee a problem for everyone, but Mable really needed help, and the whole department stood to benefit from this group exercise.

Mable would guide the team using a model called Word Pictures; a three-part definition that transforms abstract concepts into concrete examples that anyone can understand. The goal was to take the concept ‘teamwork’ and to ask the group to contribute behaviorally specific examples of bad teamwork, good teamwork and great teamwork. If the examples are specific enough, a Word Picture should force even the most feedback resistant person to self-assess how they “stack up.”

Mable began by saying, “Thank you all for coming. We’re here to create a Word Picture; a collaborative definition of how we should all work together and what teamwork looks like in this department. Who has an example to share of good or great teamwork?”

“I just looked up teamwork on my phone,” said one person “and Webster’s says that teamwork means ‘work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole.’ How about we start with that?”

“Great,” Mable said, but let’s dive even deeper and share examples of specific behaviors that define good and great teamwork.”

“Last month I was struggling to run the new statistics software to produce a utilization report that I had to present it in the morning,” one person said. “Joe didn’t have to help me, but he stayed late and taught me the software. And even though he did a ton of work, he declined to co-present with me, saying he was just happy to help and didn’t want any credit.”

The team continued to contribute examples of good and great teamwork until Mable redirected the exercise by saying “Now, and without naming names, who can share a behaviorally specific example of bad teamwork?”

“Complaining when you’re given short notice for a project or turning down requests when one of your coworkers asks for help,” one person said.

“Waiting to be asked to help instead of just stepping up to help is bad teamwork,” said another member of the team.

While this round-robin was happening, I watched Bob, the employee who had been so resistant to Mable’s feedback. At first, he just sat there saying nothing. But as the team continued to offer examples, many of which described Bob’s bad teamwork behaviors, his gaze shifted downwards, his face grew pained and his arms crossed defensively. I could see that Bob was finally getting the message about his performance.

The purpose of this exercise was not to emotionally wound Bob, but rather to get him to hear the truth about his performance. Upon hearing what the team had to say, Bob could no longer rationalize his poor performance by saying ‘Oh, it’s just Mable that has an issue with my performance, so it’s her problem, not mine.’ The peer pressure of the group Word Picture exercise was the strong motivator Bob needed to hear the truth, to embrace the truth and to start making positive behavioral changes.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and the author of Truth At Work.

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