How managers should respond to defensiveness after feedback
I had a call a few weeks ago with a friend and fellow engineering manager, and we spent most of it talking about someone on her team who wasn’t responding well to feedback. He was performing several parts of his job pretty poorly, but when each time she told him that his work wasn’t acceptable, he pushed back. He argued, sometimes loudly, and refused to make the changes that she was asking for. My friend came to me pretty frustrated, not entirely sure how to respond to this guy.
Most managers know this feeling: they’re doing their job as a manager, giving clear, specific, professional feedback but it’s going poorly. What should you do in a situation like this?
What is “defensiveness”, exactly?
Throughout this piece, I’ll use “defensive” somewhat lazily to characterize a broad suite of behaviors. However, as with everything feedback-related, to be successful we need to be specific about the behaviors that we’re describing as “defensiveness”. These behaviors include things like:
- Arguing, e.g. when you say “X happened,” they say “no it didn’t.”
- Not responding at all when you give feedback (this is more common over Slack/email than in synchronous forms of communication)
- Not changing their behavior after feedback.
- Spoken refusal to change behavior (“no I won’t do that”)
- Raising their voice, entering your physical space, or other displays of anger
- Avoiding conversations with you when they expect to get feedback, e.g. skipping 1:1s
(Often, it’s a combination of the above.)
If you’re going to be successful at addressing defensiveness, you need to first understand which specific behaviors you’re noticing.
Check yourself (before you wreck yourself)
Before you address any of these behaviors, check yourself: was the feedback appropriate?
Feedback is an incredibly deep topic, touching on communication, human behavior, and all sorts of aspects of personality, individual preference, and style. If you’re new to the concept of feedback in the workplace, Lara Hogan’s Feedback Equation is a great place to start (and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about feedback in the future).
Below, I have some specific examples of language I might use. I find these sorts of management “scripts” to be incredibly useful, so I like to include them when I can. But because feedback is a nuanced topic, you’ll probably find your own language and style will differ. That’s normal: I intend these scripts as starting points, not “thou shalt”’s.
At the core, good feedback is:
- behavioral: about something the person did or said,
- impact-focused: talking about the impact of the person’s behavior,
- specific: about one sharply focused specific behavior, and
- future-oriented: feedback aims to change behavior in the future, not litigate the past.
If your feedback wasn’t appropriate, it’s reasonable that someone might get defensive. For example, say you notice a document your direct report wrote has dozens of typos. If you said,
it’s clear you didn’t proofread, don’t be so lazy.
Well, any defensiveness is on you. Calling them “lazy” is an attack; defensiveness is a completely reasonable response to being attacked!
If, on the other hand, you said something like
Your document has dozens of typos1, which makes us look unprofessional when we send it to our client. Can you make sure to fix those typos before sending it in the future?
That would be reasonable feedback, and defensiveness wouldn’t be warranted.
My writing partner, Sumana, noted that the language I’ve used above, “without softening, without a praise sandwich, and without asking what the report needs in order to get the problem fixed, [can be] read as harsh from a woman.” This is true: biases can be a major factor in defensive behavior. Men can be quite resistant to hearing feedback from a woman, or a white person from a Black person, etc. I’ve seen some marginalized people soften their approach to feedback to avoid needless push-back and help the message be heard. I wish I could say that tactic isn’t sometimes necessary, but… it probably is.
If someone on your team can’t receive feedback from you, despite any softening, because they’re white and you’re Black, or because they’re straight and you’re gay, or whatever: that’s a huge problem. Giving feedback is part of a manager’s job; accepting feedback from their manager is part of a direct report’s job. If they’re not able to receive reasonable feedback, they’re not doing their job.
When I’ve talked with managers from marginalized communities, I’ve heard many stories of defensiveness that seem related to race, gender, sexuality, etc. These managers have told me that when they’ve been successful at addressing that behavior, they’ve done so by focusing on specific behaviors as spelled out above, so the advice I’m giving here seems to work for those managers, too. But if you’re a manager from a marginalized background and this hasn’t been your experience: tell me about it! What has worked for you? I’d love to learn more.
I see a lot of good managers get thrown by defensiveness. Good managers are empathetic and care about their reports' feelings, so when a report reacts poorly to feedback, they wonder if they’ve done something wrong. This can lead to a spiral of avoiding giving feedback, which is bad for everyone involved.
So, if you check yourself, and know that the feedback is appropriate and warranted, you know it’s not on you, and can proceed with a clear mind.
The first few times: let it go
Once you’re sure the defensiveness is something that needs to be addressed, you should address it, right?
Wrong. The first two or three times this happens: just let it go2. Hearing corrective feedback is hard, and not everyone takes it well. Defensiveness, especially the first few times someone hears negative feedback, is pretty normal. If you haven’t been giving praise and frequent positive feedback3, the unfamiliarity with getting feedback at all can lead to defensiveness.
This is what “letting it go” might sound like:
You: Hey, your document has dozens of typos; can you make sure to fix those before sending documents to our client in the future?
Them: But I proofread it, it was fine!
You: OK, got it. Please proofread the next one even more closely, thanks.
This can be hard to do: they clearly didn’t proofread, and it wasn’t fine! Most people will want to argue. Resist that temptation, at least at first.
Remember: feedback is about the future. The point of giving feedback isn’t to litigate the past or to punish someone for mistakes. The point is to influence the way that someone behaves in the future. In that context, your goal isn’t to convince this person that their document was typo-ridden – it’s too late to do anything about that. Your goal is to get them to proof more closely the next time.
Once you’ve given the feedback (“the document had typos”) and asked for what you want done differently (“proofread more closely”), you’re done until you see what happens next time. It’s not unusual for someone to push back on feedback and still modify their behavior. If that happens, you’ve been successful, and the defensiveness doesn’t matter.
Even if the push-back means the behavior change doesn’t happen, you should still let it go a couple-three times. Sometimes it can take hearing the same feedback a few times before it sinks in. Sometimes people can take a while to change their behavior. Giving people some space to take the feedback on board is a lot more effective than arguing.
But if you’ve given feedback a few times, experienced defensiveness, and seen no behavior change – what then?
If it’s just one behavior: continue to address that behavior
If the defensiveness and lack of change about only one thing – e.g. if this person is continually turning in badly-proofread documents, and resists feedback about it, but everything else is OK – then it’s more productive to continue to address that behavior than to focus on the defensiveness.
First, I suggest giving the same feedback five or six times: give them plenty of opportunities to hear the feedback and change their behavior.
If that doesn’t work, the next step is to escalate to systemic feedback: noting that there’s a systemic issue here and asking them to work on that explicitly. This might sound something like:
I’ve asked you six times now to proofread your documents more closely before sending them to the client, but you continue to send them off with errors in them. I find the fact that you haven’t changed your behavior here, despite being asked six times, deeply concerning. You need to fix this going forward. What are you going to do differently in the future to make sure your documents are clean before they go out?
You might also add that continuing this behavior could put their job in jeopardy, or threatens their chances of a raise/promotion. Those things are probably true at this point, and it’s important to be clear about the consequences of not fixing the problem.
If this person has been defensive all along, they’ll probably continue to do so here. Again, remember that the goal is to change future behavior, and so couch anything you say in that context. Continue to ask things like “what changes will you make in the future?” or “how will you fix this going forward”, etc. You might explicitly say that you don’t care about the past as long as the future changes.
Don’t get drawn into an argument. Make your point about the future behavior change, make it clear what the consequences will be if they don’t respond to your feedback, but if they continue to argue just walk away.
This is one of the rare times that it might be appropriate for you to use your role power. Sometimes, directs will disagree with your direction entirely – e.g., this person might admit there are a bunch of typos but say that it isn’t a problem. Arguing over a standard that’s set by you or the organization itself is a waste of energy; it would be appropriate to say
look, I hear your disagreement, but this is the standard I’m setting for the team, and you need to follow it.
Good managers hate to say “do this because I’m your boss”, but this is one of the times when you should.
If the behavior doesn’t change after giving this kind of systemic feedback a few times, it’s time to get HR involved and start taking steps to fire this person, but that’s another article.
Addressing defensiveness as a systemic behavior
Now, if your report is defensive about all feedback, that’s somewhat different. That’s a serious problem: a major part of a manager’s job is giving feedback. If directs respond poorly often enough to make giving feedback difficult or impossible, or if they don’t respond to feedback at all, that represents a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between them and their boss. If it doesn’t change, it’s grounds for dismissal.
Remember that, as with any systemic feedback, you’ll want to let it go the first few times. Sometimes (often?) defensiveness dissolves after someone’s heard corrective feedback a few times. You’ll want to wait until you’ve seen the defensive behavior five or six times before you conclude that it’s a pattern, and move to address the pattern.
The steps to address systemic defensiveness is similar to the steps above, except it’s the defensive behaviors themselves that need to be addressed.
To do that, you’ll need to get specific about what “defensive” means, in terms of the direct’s behavior. See above for the behaviors we’re talking about when we say “defensiveness”. You have to be specific if you want to be successful: if you say “you get defensive”, they’ll just say “no I don’t” and now you’re going in circles. Instead, you need to get very clear with yourself, and with them, about the behaviors – actions and words – that you’re seeing.
If you’ve given negative feedback a few times, and seen these kinds of behaviors, you need to address them. This follows the same format as any good feedback – describe the behavior, ask for a change – but this time the behavior is the defensiveness after feedback itself. This might sound something like this:
I’ve noticed that when I give you negative feedback, you disagree with me about the behavior I’m describing, and don’t make the changes I’m requesting. Part of my job as your manager is to give you feedback, and I need you to take it on board. We won’t always agree on how to do things, and I’ll always listen to your point of view, but if when I make a decision and ask you to do something, I need you to do it. Can you commit to that in the future?
If this person generally argues with your feedback, they’re very likely to do so again here. Remember: your goal is not to litigate past behavior; don’t argue if they disagree with your characterization. Instead, keep the focus on the future: “when I give you feedback, you need to do the thing I ask.”
Once again, if their behavior is getting to the point that you’re thinking about firing them over it, you should be clear that continuing the behavior will put their job in jeopardy. It should: taking feedback well is basic professionalism, and if someone can’t do that they aren’t a good member of your team.
This turned out to have been a long piece, so let me recap. When one of your directs responds defensively to feedback, here’s what to do:
- Check yourself: are you giving specific behavioral feedback, focused on the future? If not: the defensiveness is your fault, not theirs.
- The first 2-3 times this happens: just let it go.
- If the behavior continues…
- If they’re only defensive about one specific thing: simply continue to address that thing. Escalate from individual feedback to feedback about the pattern itself.
- If they’re defensive about many things: address the defensiveness itself – being sure to focus on behaviors – and if needed escalate to systemic feedback.
- If none of this works, you need to take steps to let this person go.
I hope this helps other managers who find themselves in a situation like this. If you try this yourself, let me know how it goes!
Depending on who you’re giving the feedback to, you may want to give some specific examples here. Some people need specific examples to understand the feedback; others will find them patronizing. This is why building a strong relationship with your team is so important: you need to know these preferences. ↩︎
There are some exceptions here: illegal or unethical behavior, behavior that puts anyone’s physical safety at risk, workplace conduct that’s deeply inappropriate or discriminatory, etc. I’m talking here about more run-of-the-mill, mildly negative work performance stuff. If something’s a potential firing offense, or requires you to get HR or Legal involved, that’s totally different. ↩︎
You’re almost certainly not giving enough positive feedback. Positive feedback is generally more effective, and research suggests that you should be giving 5 or more pieces of positive feedback for each piece of negative feedback you provide. ↩︎