Handling Emotional Reactions to Feedback

Employees sometimes make mistakes, perform below par, or display inappropriate behaviors, and it’s up to their supervisor or manager to talk to them about it. Feedback is essential to growth and improvement for both employees and leaders. It provides employees with honest and specific information about the status of their work, and their manager’s standards.

But few leaders enjoy feeling like “the bad guy” or facing an employee’s emotional reactions to feedback. The leader who can see feedback as a positive and ongoing communication tool will find many opportunities for growth and be able to build stronger relationships with employees.

But what do you do when an employee shuts down, argues every point or starts to cry during a feedback session? It’s natural for an employee to feel defensive while receiving feedback, and it’s also natural for leaders to be unnerved by such reactions. Understanding that both you and the employee may feel uncomfortable or even unsafe is the first step to managing emotional reactions to feedback.

When emotions overwhelm a feedback session, defensive behaviors can cause you or the employee to back down, lose control or change focus. That’s why we developed SAFE?, an acronym that helps us organize our thinking and keep our cool while we work through defensive moments.