Three Keys to Reducing Defensive Reactions to Performance Feedback

By Jamie Resker, President and Founder of Employee Performance Solutions


The Challenge:  Most managers are able to intuitively assess and describe employee performance issues, but what is difficult is communicating this information to the employee.  Nearly all managers dread initiating these conversations and often avoid them whenever possible causing performance issues to worsen over time.  Frequently, the area for development relates to difficult to quantify behaviors such as interpersonal skills, personality traits, motivation and attitude.  Discussing these issues with an employee can seem out of the question.  The underlying problem is the inability to translate what is “known” into effective words that are both comfortable to say and will have the right effect on the employee.  The Performance Continuum Feedback Method® (PCFM) is a straight forward approach to do just that.

The PCFM helps you put the focus on the positive desired performance rather than highlighting the current negative performance. The result is a message that managers can deliver comfortably and with greater confidence that employee will remain open to hearing the information as opposed to reacting self protectively.

Key #1: Identify the Performance Issue

Identify the negative behavior that is holding the individual back – not a problem for most people. Then describe it in the opposite, positive terms.

For example, if the employee lacks finesse when dealing with clients and behaves like a “bull in a china shop” the manager would ask the employee to develop a more polished and professional style.

For an employee that makes frequent mistakes, the manager would talk in terms of developing more accuracy.  For the employee who chronically complains that everything is a problem but never offers any solutions, the manager might ask the employee to develop a problem solving approach.





Monitors and reports on what everyone else is doing   Look beyond issues that are outside of your control.
Makes rude
comments about others
  When you have a thought about someone else that isn’t entirely positive I need for you to hold onto those thoughts (keep them under your hat).
Locks on to
solutions before fully understanding the problem
  As a first step obtain a full understanding of the problem and then begin exploring solutions.
Lacks compassion and understanding   Develop understanding and sensitivity to what others are experiencing.
Doesn’t listen to the full story   Listen to the full story and then begin asking questions to clarify.
Yells /raises her voice   Dial down the tone and volume of your voice.


Key #2: Be Specific about the Desired Chang

Turning around a negative into a statement about what we want is just the start.  It is important to get specific about what you mean by a “more polished and professional approach”, “more accuracy” or a “problem solving approach”. For example, “What I mean by „develop a problem solving approach‟ is that when you first notice a problem that is preventing you from getting your job done I want you to first think through a solution and then approach me if it’s something you need my help with”.

Key #3: Detail the Benefits of Making the Change

Lastly, it is useful to explain to the employee the benefit of developing the performance area. First, ask yourself “What problems does this performance cause”?

In the case of the chronic complainer who never offers solutions, their behavior most likely creates negativity, wastes time and garners complaints from co-workers who are sick and tired of listening to this person drone on about what’s wrong.

So, the “here’s why I’m asking you to focus on this” part of the message would sound something like this. “The reason I want you to focus on solving problems is that people will notice and appreciate your can do approach This will make more  constructive use of the time we have and it will bring more positive energy into the team”.

Notice how the message is still honest yet talks in terms of what WILL happen when the employee develops a problem solving approach.

These keys represent some of the core concepts of the Performance Continuum Feedback® Method, a step-by-step methodology designed to make anyone comfortable delivering even the most difficult feedback.


Talking in terms of the desired performance versus the current undesired performance serves two purposes:

1. We are more likely to initiate the discussion because the wording makes it more comfortable to deliver the feedback.

2. The employee learns what is expected (as opposed to focusing on what’s wrong) and their self-esteem is left intact.

Bypassing negative performance descriptions and the resulting negative employee reaction allows the employee to respond more positively; ultimately facilitating the move towards the solution phase of the discussion – the ultimate goal of providing feedback in the first place.

A simple rule of thumb is to provide the employee with at least two opportunities to receive the feedback and make progress on the issue. Only when it becomes clear that the employee is unwilling or unable to make progress should more extreme measures be used – such as disciplinary action or documented performance plans.


About the Author

Jamie Resker is the President and Founder of Employee Performance Solutions and an instructor at Boston University Corporate Education Center.  EPS programs are offered through speaking engagements, on-site workshops, train-the-trainer and materials licensing to corporate, not for profit and government clients.  Jamie is the originator of the Performance Continuum Feedback® Method and can be reached at
jamie@employeeperformancesolutions.comor  (w) 781-210-2049 (m) 781-752-5716.