My friend Jennifer wrote to me with an interesting, though not uncommon, conundrum. She was asking for help with an employee who is very “defensive” and won’t acknowledge the defensive behavior. She wrote, “the employee continues to interrupt me when I’m providing feedback, and says she has, ‘a right to substantiate’ her perspective. I have tried to tell her that, yes she can explain her point of view but she also needs to listen actively to ensure she understand what I am saying. I’ve suggested that while she is listening she is actually building her case to ‘substantiate’ or defend and therefore not really ‘actively listening’, nor willing to ever acknowledge what I am asking her to change. I’m feel like I’m not getting through to her and am getting frustrated. She is at a director level, not a newbie, and I want to just scream at her, ‘Just do your job!’ but I know this would not be effective. Any suggestions?”
Now, I’ve known Jennifer a long time, I’ve worked with her and I know she’s a terrific manager. But we’ve all run up against people like her current employee. And the good news is, there’s lots she can do.
First off, she needs to stop telling the employee to listen, or listen actively. The employee in question thinks she is listening actively. So pointing out that she may not be (IMHO, she isn’t) won’t do and hasn’t done any good.
Second, Jennifer needs to find a neutral way to talk with the employee about her shortcomings or what she’s doing wrong. But she cannot use the word “wrong” with her or she will likely feel attacked and respond with a “fight or flight” reaction. And we know this employee will dig in her 3-inch heels and fight! I’m sure Jennifer is not attacking her employee but that is certainly how she’s being perceived.
Describe specifically what the employee is doing that is not acceptable. That’s the “what.” Then describe why it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. That’s the “so what.” So named because of times when I’ve described a problem or shortcoming to an employee and they responded with, “So what?” Then finally the “now what.” This is the change you expect to see and when. If the unacceptable performance is a deficit of knowledge, then the person needs time and training to rectify it. But if it’s a deficit of performance due to attitude, then when you finish describing the performance you expect to see, you will often end with, “and now!”
Although I agree with your feedback delivery advice, I have been observing at work and at home that people are much more likely to interrupt in conversations. For example, I was in a meeting the other day and I was interrupted after literally 3 words; couldn’t even get out a full phrase. I wonder if some of this behavior is due to our instant-reactivity changes that are taking place technologically.
Maybe Jennifer needs to do your 3-step model but pause after each for the employee’s reaction.
Great observation! It’s the Twitter impact on feedback, Do we need to deliver feedback in 140 character sound bites? I hope not. But this could be a reminder to tailor our style of feedback to the needs of the listener. In a previous post I noted that when it comes to feedback, one size definitely does not fit all.
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Ron, this is a very interesting subject. Often people “dig in” because they do not feel that they are being heard. I think an important part of the discussion has to be active listening on the manager’s part. Employees do not respond well if they feel the jury is already “in”.
You make a very valid point. It’s important for Jennifer to continue to evaluate her feedback style to ensure that nothing in the way she’s providing feedback is engendering the response she’s getting from this employee. She needs to, and knowing Jennifer she is, model the active listening she hopes to see in the employee.
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Jennifer’s employee is too much in her own head to listen to anything from the outside coming in, even well delivered feedback. How about having her self assess by just asking a series of questions – What are you doing well? What do you enjoy? What might you do better? What would be the effect of that? What do you believe others would like to see you do better? What would be the impact if you took that route? Etc. Jennifer only actively listens and adds her supporting comments to the ideas. If she doesn’t name the change that Jennifer is aiming at, Jennifer can always say, “I have an additional view. Would you be interested?” This way the employee sees that Jennifer is acting in her behalf and is more likely to listen to Jennifer’s comments.
A thought. With someone like Jennifer’s employee, many different approaches may be necessary before you find the one that clicks.
Outstanding insights. Using a self assessment might be the way to get through with this employee. Then the door is open for a more substantive conversation, and the employee may not feel the need to “substantiate” all her actions as she has had her say up front. No guarantee it will work, but it’s a good way to start. I agree that Jennifer will need to take several different approaches to successfully reach this employee.
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