Dear Scott,

I have an employee who just won’t engage with feedback. When I do share feedback, he totally falls apart and wants to quit. He struggles with any type of criticism from me or anyone. Other managers have shared with me the same concern. How can I get him to engage?

Signed, Can’t Get Through

Dear Can’t Get Through,

I can appreciate your situation. We’ve all worked with people who don’t respond to feedback. And we’ve probably all experienced how difficult it can be to receive feedback. Even when we want feedback so that we can improve and do our best, it can be difficult to receive. It can be difficult for two reasons.

  1. We are blind to the gap. Dan Heath refers to this as “problem blindness” in his book Upstream. We are oblivious to the serious problems in our midst. We don’t see things the way others do.
  2. We don’t want there to be a gap. This may be a form of what I will call “performance delusion.” With our strong desire to be a high performer, we convince ourselves that we are one. And this contributes to our blindness of the problem. We are particularly prone to this delusion when we are producing great results but doing so in a negative way. We see the outcome not the process.

There’s an old adage that says you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And though this is true, it is also incomplete. You can’t make the horse drink, but you can salt the oats. And what happens when you salt the oats? The horse gets thirsty. And what happens when a horse gets thirsty? The horse drinks the water. So, while you can’t force someone to engage in feedback, you can look for opportunities to “salt the oats.” Let me share a few suggestions.

Get Before You Give

Engaging in feedback should be about more than helping others receive it. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, suggests that the best way to make your team more receptive to feedback is to ask for it yourself. The goal should be to build a relationship of trust and to create a culture of dialogue and feedback. Scott reminds us that this won’t happen by merely asking. You will need to be persistent to show that you really do want feedback. You will also need to be clear that you aren’t fishing for praise. You want employees to challenge you in ways that will help you be a better leader and contributor. She also says that it isn’t enough to appreciate the feedback, but that you need to praise and reward those who give it. Two-way feedback is the best kind of feedback. And when employees see you drinking the water, they are more inclined to drink themselves.

Know Before You Share

People rarely get defensive because of what you say; they get defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. Before offering feedback, ask yourself why you are sharing it and why it is helpful. Your motives should involve goals that your employee cares about, not just the goals you care about. This is called Mutual Purpose. When you get clear on your motives and have your employee’s goals in mind when sharing feedback, they are “thirstier” to receive it.

It won’t be enough for you to know your intent. You will need to declare it. When left unsaid, others are left to guess what your motives are. And people are terrible guessers. So preface your feedback with a simple declaration of intent. It might sound like this:

“Because I know you would like to be a manager someday, I want to share a few things that will help you prepare for that opportunity.”

“Let me share with you something I wish someone would have shared with me when I was in your position.”

“I know you want to work efficiently so you can avoid stress and burnout, so let’s talk about something that appears to be getting in the way.”

When others know why you are sharing feedback, they are more receptive. Many are already thirsting; they just need to know it is safe to drink.

As you strive to build a culture of feedback, ask yourself, “How can I salt the oats?” What else can you do to make people not only want feedback, but also actively seek it and share it? Remember to ask for feedback before giving it, check your motives before sharing it, and declare them when you do. If you do this I think you will start see others drink the water that you lead them to.

Best of luck,

About the author

Scott Robley is a speaker, coach, and master trainer at VitalSmarts. With more than twenty years of experience in education, training, and public speaking, Scott brings to the table energy, fun, and professionalism. He is a master storyteller and committed to changing the world by changing behaviour.

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