When feedback ‘doesn’t work’

When feedback 'doesn’t work'


“But what if I give someone constructive feedback and it doesn’t work?”

This question sometimes comes up in Zoomly’s ‘How to give effective feedback’ workshop. It may be that the participant has given a colleague feedback on their work and has yet to see any improvement in performance. Or, as is often the case around this topic, they haven’t even tried to give feedback yet. They’re just anxious that it might not…work. This anxiety can lead to someone ducking feedback before they’ve even got started.

If you’ve given someone feedback on their performance and aren’t seeing a shift in the right direction, it could be for one of these reasons.

1.The feedback wasn’t clear
Whatever was said about this person’s performance, it was so padded with platitudes and praise (to soften up the recipient) that the person on the receiving end now thinks they’re doing a great job. No improvement required.

Try this: As I say in ‘The Feedback Book’, don’t feed clever people stupid sandwiches. Humans being what we are, we’ll pay attention to either the bread or the filling – the mixed message is likely to be misunderstood. Praise people for a job well done – and leave it at that. Same goes for performance that needs to improve: give crystal clear feedback on the behaviour that’s falling short and the impact that has. Resist the urge to pad it out; instead ask a question to invite the recipient to articulate what’s going on for them, and what steps they’ll take.

2. They don’t know how to do it
If you’ve given feedback that is clear and pinpoints the behaviour that’s off-course, you’ve allowed the recipient to respond and comment, so far so good. But if nothing’s changed since then, it might be that the recipient doesn’t know how to carry out the task. Yet. They may be terrified about delivering that next presentation. Or feel way out of their depth on the software skills they need to complete the task. Or they lack the knowledge to get started on what you’ve asked them to do. But they’re reluctant to admit it.

Try this: Briefly remind the person that you’ve had a conversation about this. Ask them what help they need to get the job done, whether that’s from you or someone else. Explain that if they need support you’ll make sure they get it.

3. They disagree with the feedback
You might have a situation where the colleague is carrying on in their own sweet way because they don’t agree with your feedback. They may be blissfully unaware of the impact of their behaviour. They may be blatantly flouting team ways of working.

Try this: Ensure your feedback identifies not only the behaviour that currently falls short, but also the impact this has on the work, the team and results. You can then develop a dialogue about what changes they will make. If you’re still unsure, and concerned the conversation will become an argument, check your facts first. For example, you can seek advice from your manager about the person’s performance and ask for examples. Maybe you’re being too hard on them – or they really do need to make a change.

4. They think they’ve got the hang of it
You’re seeing positive signs, they’re getting some things right, but they’re not quite there yet.

Try this: beware nagging someone who’s taken on board the feedback you’ve given them and is trying to improve. It’s time to provide positive feedback on what they’re doing right, even if only small steps so far. Use coaching questions to encourage them to keep going. Ask: how are they getting on? What’s working well now? What’s a challenge they can take on?

5. They don’t think it’s your job to comment
You’ve given the person feedback on their performance and you’re met with this response. Ouch.

Try this: if you’re certain the person is your direct report, then it is indeed your job to manage their performance. You’ll need to remind them of that, nicely. Reassure them you’re giving this feedback because you can see they have potential to perform better. If the person doesn’t report to you – they work in another area and you’ve commented on their behaviour – think carefully before escalating matters. Observe how others respond to the behaviour you think isn’t right. – what impact does it have? Don’t tolerate abusive behaviour. Raise the subject with your manager, or someone more impartial who you trust.

Like I said, if your feedback ‘hasn’t worked’, it’s probably because it wasn’t received and understood as intended. But if none of the above causes apply and the person’s work is routinely sub-standard then this post, ‘What can you do if someone’s work isn’t good enough?’ offers ideas.


You may find this post useful:‘4 excuses for dodging feedback – and what to do instead’

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’

Copyright Zoomly




Image credit: Businesswoman – @Aleksei-veprev-DepositPhotos

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