Just Say It: Performance Conversations with Defensive Employees

by Tim Sackett | Posted | Performance Management

Just Say It: Performance Conversations with Defensive Employees

Welcome to the "Just Say It" blog series! This series is designed to provide real-world situations we all face as leaders, and how (I believe) you should deal with them.

First, you need to understand I'm not your normal leader. I'm probably willing to try and do things you won't, and that's okay. My hope is you'll be able to take parts and pieces of these posts to help you become a better performance manager of your team.

How to give a defensive employee feedback

One of the hardest things you'll ever do is to try and manage the performance of an employee who you know will be super defensive over anything you say about their performance. Most performance management experts would traditionally break right into helping Mr. Defensive gain some self-insight and understand how they come across when they get ultra-defensive.

Remember, I'm not your traditional performance management expert.

Here's how I would handle Mr. Defensive.

1. I would fire him.

No, really. Let's hope you never hire anyone who is defensive by nature ‒ and that you have the ability to uncover this defective personality trait during the interview stage.

Chances are, at some point, you're going to inherit a Mr. or Mrs. Defensive, and have to deal with managing their performance. If this is the case, and you have not yet reached the point of wanting to fire them, here's another way to handle this type of employee:

2. Never, ever give them negative feedback.

No, really, I'm not kidding.

Here's the main issue with an employees who become very defensive. Once you start to dive into the performance issue, (no matter what it might be) they'll shut down, and essentially stop listening to what you're saying. At this point, you're not managing their performance, you're just frustrating yourself and the employee!

I know what you're thinking, "Hey, this isn't performance management, this is just giving up!" But, it's not. Understanding the psychology of an employee who becomes defensive is key to driving the right behaviors you need out of them. You being critical of their performance, even in the slightest way, will continue to lead to the same end result ‒ going nowhere!

Employees who are ultra-defensive can even take neutral feedback as being negative.

How to talk about performance differently

This doesn't mean you can't manage their performance. It does mean you need to manage their performance differently than someone who is willing and accepting of critical feedback. Many leaders fail because they try and manage every employee the same way. Imagine your own frustration if you were being managed this way!

With highly defensive employees, you need to focus less on providing verbal feedback and more on establishing defined measures of what success will look like for the employee in his or her specific role. You don't make it personal, you make it mechanical. Here's how this might sound:

"Thanks so much for meeting with me today, Mr. D. By the way, you did a great job on that last project in terms of getting it over the finish line, I know that was tough. On this next project, there are going to be a couple of key deliverables you'll be responsible for in your role. Others will be responsible for "X", "X" and "X". This is big, so we're going to meet each week to ensure you're on track. If you need help at any point, let me know. Any questions?"

Now, there might have been an issue with the last project, maybe with quality or something else. If you had gone there, you never would have gotten past that particular issue. It's really a case of "I need this person to perform, so I'm going to focus on moving them forward and putting some strong bumpers around what's expected."

We know that Mr. D. will probably come back and potentially blame others for a missed measurable. That's why you specifically spell out what they're responsible for and manage them to that outcome.

Learning to work with defensive employees

Being defensive is a personality flaw. You aren't going to solve this for an employee by pointing it out. You can either work with it or get rid of it. You'll be more successful getting the most out of defensive employees if you focus on delivering positive feedback on things you can ‒ and putting very black and white measures around what's expected.

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