How to Give Feedback to a Defensive Employee

The feedback session wasn't going well.

A contact center supervisor was reviewing a call with an agent where the agent's lack of friendliness seemed obvious. She had replied to the customer's questions in a monotone voice with short, clipped responses, and didn't acknowledge the customer's frustration.

The agent's response was to the supervisor's coaching was to flatly disagree. "Well," said the agent, "that's friendly for me."

Customer service leaders often face this dilemma. How do you get employees to embrace feedback, when they don't agree their performance needs to improve? 

I was lucky to have a mentor show me a technique that works.

A defensive employee argues with his boss.

Step 1: Identify Observable Behavior

One of the challenges faced by the supervisor is that friendliness is surprisingly difficult to define. You might know friendliness when you see it, but describing it isn't so easy. 

The supervisor couldn't explain what exactly the employee was doing wrong or what specifically she needed to do to improve. "You weren't friendly," was ultimately a subjective assessment.

Leaders often struggle getting employees onboard with murky concepts like friendliness.

My boss, Debbi, was a mentor to me when I supervised a contact center training department many years ago. She taught me to overcome this challenge by focusing on observable behavior. These are behaviors you can actually see, rather than inferences.

For example, let's go back to friendliness. What specific behaviors did the agent display that led the supervisor to conclude the agent wasn't being friendly?

  • Monotone voice

  • Short, clipped responses

  • Did not acknowledge the customer's frustration

So what does friendly look like? Here's an experiment you can try. Observe an employee you know is being friendly. Try to identify the specific behaviors they display that tell you they are friendly.

You can see an example in this short video. Skip ahead if you’d like to 1:20 to see a poor example and then a good example at 1:58.

Step 2: Check Your Intent

Your intent in a feedback conversation is critical to getting that surly employee onboard.

The supervisor's intent with the unfriendly contact center agent was to get the employee to acknowledge she hadn't been friendly. Ultimately, the supervisor hoped the agent would accept being marked down on the quality monitoring form that was used to evaluate agent performance.

That feels pretty adversarial. And right or wrong, it's human nature to get defensive when confronted by an adversary.

I once made the mistake of confronting an employee about her bad attitude. She immediately became defensive and it didn't go well. That's because my intent was to get her to accept that she had a bad attitude.

My mentor, Debbi, gave me some advice that helped me change my intent with this employee. I started my next meeting with the employee by explaining that five different people had complained about working with her, and I wanted to work together to help her change that perception.

This time, I didn't try to get my employee to admit she was wrong. We focused instead on identifying specific behaviors she needed to display to convince colleagues she didn't have a bad attitude. It was still a difficult conversation, but we were now on the same side.

The next time you want to give an employee feedback, make sure your intent is to help them deliver a great performance the next time.

Step 3: Provide a Good Example

People can still disagree despite the best of intentions and seemingly clear, observable behavior. This makes it important to have an example of what good performance looks like.

There are a few ways you can do this.

One way is to share a visual. For instance, a chain of pizza restaurants has a poster showing two employees standing side-by-side. One is wearing their uniform correctly, while the other is not. This makes it easier to see what a "good" uniform presentation should look like.

Supervisors can also demonstrate the expected behavior. A hospitality manager who wanted his employees to give friendly greetings had employees observe him greet several guests.

Still another approach is to use your employee's past performance as a model. The contact center supervisor could have found a previous call where the agent was friendly, and played them for the agent back-to-back so she would better understand the difference between the two.

Debbi consistently coached me to set a positive example for my employees. So when I made suggestions to help an employee convince colleagues she didn’t have a “bad attitude,” I could show her examples of what I was looking for.

Take Action

Okay, here's the caveat.

These steps won't work 100 percent of the time. Some employees just aren't open to feedback, no matter how you approach them. In those cases, a poor performer should be told to improve or move on to another position.

Yet I've found that most employees will improve if you approach them the right way. My “bad attitude” employee made the adjustments she needed to make and completely changed how her colleagues perceived her. I made sure to acknowledge her progress and continued to communicate that I was on her side.