Managing employees who reject feedback, being sensitive to COVID-19

No-one likes to either give or receive difficult feedback, even more so right now when people are still dealing with the consequences of COVID-19. But, employee performance won’t improve unless employers communicate clearly about problems, and staff are able to take it on board and respond to what’s needed.

So, what can HR do to help line managers if someone in their team simply rejects negative feedback, or fails to act on it? How can line managers respond when an employee refuses to recognise that there is room for improvement?

According to Sona Sherratt and Roger Delves in their book, ‘The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast solutions to everyday challenges’  the first step is to understand why  the individual is rejecting feedback.

covid-19 performance reject feedback

Some important questions HR might ask:

  • How has COVID-19 affected the relationship between the employee and their team? Are leaders struggling to keep lines of communication strong? Are they being properly supported by HR?
  • Is the individual aware of their impact on their team? And, is their manager self-aware? (The problem may lie on either or both sides.)
  • Has the individual adjusted to receiving feedback remotely? How have their performance reviews been conducted in the past?
  • Is it worth double checking the accuracy of your feedback?

Asking the above might paint a clearer picture which will make it easier to find solutions to any concerns.

Delivering negative feedback isn’t easy – especially with a remote workforce – however, the following five tips may help:

Stand back before you launch in

This might be a good time for HR to advise line managers to tailor how feedback is delivered – some people love it and can’t get enough, others prefer to receive their feedback in small doses and from people they respect.

HR can remind line managers to be tactful in their approach, and to take care not to criticise others simply because they work differently to you. Staff may also be adapting to new ways of working if they’ve had to work offsite recently, and this might accentuate varying working styles, so it’s important to be open minded about different approaches. Make sure you have all the facts before you engage with the employee.

Keep context in mind

The quality of the feedback line managers give, and the likelihood of it being accepted will be higher if employees’ unique circumstances are kept in mind. Perhaps the employee is dealing with an unusual situation at home (such as a family member unwell with COVID-19), or a worker is stepping up into responsibilities that aren’t normally part of their remit – hence their skills still need to be developed in that area. On top of these potential extenuating circumstances, it can be especially difficult to deliver an effective appraisal in a remote context.

As an HR professional, if you’ve been able to identify staff whose work might be especially hindered in a remote context, stay in regular contact with those employees. Keep line managers informed of their circumstances as they change and develop – this will improve the accuracy and relevance of their performance reviews.

Be flexible

Employees have been dealing with the pandemic in their own ways. Line managers need to be prepared to adapt according to the needs of the individual they are dealing with, as well as being flexible in how feedback is delivered. For instance, regular formal appraisals are important but sometimes an informal Skype call can work just as well. Indeed, it might be better in some cases, where small but important blips can be smoothed over, without escalating the concern unnecessarily. And, if feedback needs to be given about a specific instance, don’t leave it too long. The impact will be lost if conversations are had weeks after the issue at hand took place.

The latest HR systems, built to support informal check-ins, are an excellent way to stay on top of appraisals and to keep them simple but effective.

Show empathy

One way to lessen the chances of feedback being rejected is to remember to keep it balanced, evidence-based, objective, specific and timely. Avoiding value judgments or passing on third-party comments is important as failing to do so can incur bias and unfairness, which only gives staff more reason to become defensive and reject further feedback.

Showing sensitivity – perhaps by leading with questions rather than statements or assertions regarding their performance – is a great way to create rapport, making an otherwise uncomfortable conversation more pleasant and constructive.

HR could offer line managers training on having these difficult conversations, either inhouse or through external suppliers. You could also ask for feedback on performance conversations to ensure that they’re free of bias and as objective as possible.

Help people build self-awareness remotely

Often when people struggle to hear feedback, it is because they lack self-awareness. Working remotely and having less contact with team members means employees risk becoming isolated, and potentially trapped in their own working ‘bubble’. They might demonstrate poorer listening skills and lack empathy, or may become defensive in their approach as a result.

HR should work closely with line managers to maintain a culture of effective communication, and to think of ways to help individuals understand how their behaviour can come across to their team members. Personality and behavioural tests, introduced in the right way, can be a great tool to help people better understand themselves and how they fit into team environments.

To read more about remote performance management, check out our COVID-19 support page.

Some ideas above have been drawn from ‘The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast solutions to everyday challenges’, Sona Sherratt and Roger Delves, Pearson 2014.

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