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6 steps to take when employee insists, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong!’

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Why is feedback so often met with excuses and resistance?

You probably know the kind of pushback — that immediate reaction of “But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

Employees may not be 100% correct about their innocence, but the managers giving feedback may be partly to blame for the resistance.

Here’s why: Half of managers are stressed when they give corrective feedback, according to research from Zenger Folkman. So they end up rambling, contradicting or being abrupt.

Then guess what happens: Employees find it hard to understand and get value from that kind of conversation.

Who didn’t do anything wrong?

“The secret of effective feedback is making it feel like the message is coming from an ally, not an adversary,” says Liane Davey, a speaker and author of The Good Fight, “Unfortunately, if you’re stressed and anxious when delivering feedback, it will translate into poor communication.”

To make constructive feedback effective, it pays to be clear that you care about employees’ well-being and success.

That helps on both ends. It’s easier for a manager to be the person who wants to help, not criticize. And employees can quickly focus on the improvement, not the failure.

“You want to make feedback feel more like you’re invested in your colleague’s success,” says Davey. “When you feel like you are helping someone, your anxiety will naturally decrease.” 

Here’s how to give feedback as an ally:

1. Share a vision

When you sit down together, talk about a shared vision for success — something you can both agree is pertinent to the issue and impactful on the future.

For instance, “You know how important it is that we meet the deadline for this project, and we all need to work together to succeed.”

2. Orient the situation

Start with some background about the situation, giving exact details on what, where, when and the expectations that were set around all that.

For instance, you might say, “We all agreed to meet yesterday afternoon so we could finalize the proposal. Everyone attending had a responsibility, including you and me.”

3. Describe the behavior

Be clear and objective on the behavior that needs improvement.

For example, “You showed up 10 minutes late to the meeting and interrupted our progress when you walked in. The agenda item you were responsible for was missing key metrics.”

Ideally, your description is so accurate that the employee can only nod in agreement — and not give you the “But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

4. Share the impact

Focus on the impact of the behavior: Steer clear of trying to decipher the intent behind it.

One key: Use words such as “think” and “feel” so it’s clear you’re giving your interpretation, not insisting that your version is the truth.

For instance, “When you arrived late and didn’t have your work done, I think it gave everyone the impression that you aren’t focused on the goal and the team’s success.”

5. Transfer ownership

To be sure the feedback is clearly heard and understood, and will be applied, give the employee ownership of the situation. Ask open-ended questions such as:

  • “How do you think everyone felt?”
  • “What impact do you think you had on the team and me?” or
  • “How might you be able to better prepare?”

6. Listen and move forward

An ally is interested in both sides of the story. So once you’ve laid out your perspective, listen to the employee’s. You might find out you missed some critical facts or didn’t get the whole picture.

Share perspectives until you both have a clear view of how things will play out going forward, agreeing on expectations and consequences.

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