A reader writes: "I'm the manager of a department under enormous pressures. When I give bad feedback, employees get defensive, resentful or openly hostile..."

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I’m the manager of a department under enormous pressures. When I give bad feedback, employees get defensive, resentful or openly hostile. How do I deliver criticism without demoralizing my staff?

Most folks confuse requests for behavioral changes with inadequacy. Many people are also much touchier about their self-esteem than you’d suspect.

When a manager gives negative feedback, an employee may hear the manager saying the employee is worthless. The employee then defends not the behavior but the employee’s value. Most arguments about who is right at work are actually arguments about self-esteem.

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If you want to deliver bad news and make requests for change without triggering this normal response, you have to validate an employee’s worth.

For example, you might say something like: “You are an important, competent and productive part of our team. I particularly appreciate your leadership ability. I want you to change the way you start the morning meetings to encourage more participation. Let’s talk about options.”

If you realize that employees hear suggestions as an evaluation of their value, you’ll sprinkle feedback liberally with praise.

Of course, some employees won’t tolerate any request for change. It implies a lack of perfection, and these employees feel too ashamed of imperfection to tolerate bad feedback. You cannot praise these employees enough to get them to listen. They’ll withdraw into icy indifference or rage at a manager “cruel” enough to point out room for improvement.

Try to spot employees who can’t stand criticism at the interview stage. When you interview, ask a question that makes a prospective employee talk about a mistake. Were they accountable? Did they learn anything? Are they still defending themselves?

It also helps if you normalize and celebrate mistakes as part of learning. Praise employees for accountability and risk taking, not just successes. If employees know you want progress, not perfection, feedback can motivate rather than demoralize.

The final word(s)

My boss has asked me to spy on employees and report back. Is this a reasonable assignment?

Only if you’re a private investigator.

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., can be reached at 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., No. 2845, Issaquah, WA 98027-7001; by e-mail at interpersonaledge@comcast.net; or at www.interpersonaledge.com. Sorry, no personal replies. To read other Daneen Skube columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/daneenskube