When Giving Effective Feedback Doesn’t Work

What can you do when you’ve given difficult performance feedback to someone and it feels like you’ve run into a brick wall?

You have tried the following best practices for giving effective feedback:

  • Delivering your feedback in a timely fashion and in an appropriate setting.
  • Using Situation / Behavior / Feedback (SBI) or another approach to help ensure the message is clear, direct and specific and to help ensure you’re helping the person take ownership of their impact.
  • Building a trusting relationship over time, where possible, where you affirm positive performance and demonstrate care and commitment to help the person grow and develop.
  • Empathizing and giving the person the benefit of the doubt, along with a second and even third tough but caring message and chance to improve.

When these approaches don’t work and the person still seems resistant, defensive, dismissive or otherwise nonreceptive, try these approaches.

  • Give feedback about how they are (not) receiving the feedback. This may be an in-the-moment observation: “When I just now shared that feedback with you, you changed the subject / blamed your colleague / minimized the problem. I’m concerned you may not be hearing or owning your responsibility in this.” Or it may be a comment about how they’ve not made improvements over time despite repeated conversations. “This is the third time I’m bringing this to your attention, and I’m not seeing improvement.”
  • Bring in reinforcement. Whether it’s an HR business partner, your boss or other colleagues, the same message coming from multiple people may strengthen the power of your message and also signal the seriousness. A 360 degree leadership assessment can be helpful, too; multiple people providing feedback anonymously about someone’s performance can make the feedback feel safer for the givers and receivers. However, be sure not to use a 360 as the primary or only way of ensuring someone gets a tough message. Don’t use a 360 to abdicate your responsibility.
  • Get air cover. In some cases, the person will simply not hear and respond to the feedback. Documenting the person’s performance and your conversations about it, along with involving early your boss, HR partner, key management and maybe even an employment law attorney are key. They can all help you move more quickly and in alignment if you put the person on a Performance Improvement Plan and if you move to terminate employment.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard leaders say, “I wish I would have moved more quickly, firmly and clearly to address this person’s performance situation. And I wish I would have looped others in sooner.” Why not learn from their mistakes?


Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he often helps leaders give and get the feedback they need for greater growth, better performance and positive impact. You can reach him at jbaker@people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.