Unwanted Feedback

How Do You Give Feedback To Those Who Don’t Think They Need It?

Walter just didn’t get it. Even though he often spoke about his passion for his work, his incompetence and constant self-aggrandizement began to disrupt the workplace. After every performance review, Walter would exclaim, “Doesn’t (our boss) get how essential I am to this place? If it weren’t for me, nothing would get done!” In fact, the opposite was true: His absence was marked by high productivity and enhanced morale.

Most of us have had experience with this type of employee: They perform poorly and consistently fail to improve after numerous developmental opportunities, yet seem blissfully unaware of how bad they actually are. Recent research suggests that this phenomenon is not uncommon; low performers tend to vastly overestimate their abilities, and, even after objective feedback, continue to overestimate their aptitude (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003).

This puts the manager who is responsible for employee development in a tough spot; those who are the worst don’t believe they need help, do not respond to feedback, and thus, do not engage in self-improvement efforts.

So how can managers reach those who seem unaware and unconcerned about their ineffectiveness? Research has shown that when low performers are given feedback that paints them as incompetent, they first attack the credibility of the feedback. When this is not an option, they criticize the relevance of the feedback to their actual performance (Sheldon, Dunning, & Ames, 2014). In order to get through to this type of employee, we need to provide them with feedback they perceive as legitimate and relevant, while managing the emotions of the interaction.

Making Feedback Relevant

Performance appraisal criteria should be defined in terms of individual behaviors that are observable and under an employee’s control. The selected behaviors should be considered essential by managers, experts, and line staff alike, yet also contribute to the organization’s overall strategy. This will help ensure that these behaviors serve the larger organizational objectives (Rotundo, 2009). Accordingly, employees should be trained in these behaviors and made aware of the criteria by which they will be assessed. Steps should also be taken to develop systems for documenting behavioral performance (Rotundo, 2009; Latham, Almost, Mann, & Moore, 2005).

The most effective way to do so is to develop behaviorally anchored rating scales (BARs) (Rotundo, 2009). These are Likert-type scales in which each individual scale value pertains to a specific behavior. For example, on a measure assessing timeliness, a score of 1 might read, “Employee always completes work tasks behind schedule,” whereas a score of 5 might read “Employee always completes tasks on time, and often does so before their deadline.” Throughout the appraisal period the manager should gather frequent documentation of the employee’s performance from multiple sources, such as peers, customers, and other managers. This will ensure that your record of their performance is as accurate as possible (Latham et al., 2005).

Making Feedback Credible

Now that we have identified performance criteria that is universally viewed as essential and have collected accurate performance records, efforts must be made to help the employee see this feedback as legitimate.

Before the performance appraisal, the employee can be asked to fill out a self-assessment consisting of the same criteria used by the manager. This can serve as an opportunity to reveal discrepancies in perceptions, discover unforeseen barriers to performance, and reach a shared understanding of actual performance. When employees feel that their voices have been heard, they tend to view the appraisal system as fair and accurate (Rotundo, 2009). Additionally, if an employee is having continuous problems, the first time they hear about them should not be during the performance review. They probably won’t appreciate not having been told that they were doing something incorrectly, and thus looking foolish, for an extended period of time (Latham et al., 2005). It is important for you to attend the performance appraisal in person and to be fully present. Not giving the employee the attention and consideration they deserve will undermine the legitimacy of the feedback.

Keep the discussion focused on their behavior, not on their personality, for example stating, “You were late.” instead of “You are unreliable” (Latham et al., 2005). This is especially important for habitually poor performers because they tend to view task failure as a reflection of an overall flaw in themselves. This is why they seldom engage in self-improvement efforts – Failure is so painful that they avoid the opportunity to fail by never trying (Dweck, 2006). Thus, giving a poor performer bad feedback is likely to trigger feelings of inadequacy and lead to defensiveness. Keeping the discussion on the behavior can serve as a buffer.

Managing Emotions

There are a couple tips to keep in mind to manage emotions during the appraisal:

  • The manager can solicit feedback and focus on being supportive. Listening to the employee’s side of the story will lead to greater understanding and let them know you care about what they are going through (Rotundo, 2009). Remember the purpose of this appraisal is to help them improve, not to hurt their feelings.
  • Praise the employee accordingly: Discuss areas of improvement as well as areas in which they are succeeding (Rotundo, 2009). When describing areas that need improvement, limit your discussion to a few key items that are most crucial for effective organizational functioning (Latham et al., 2005). It may also help to frame this discussion by focusing on which behaviors the employee should increase, rather than which they should decrease (Latham et al., 2005). Typically, employees enact behaviors that help them reach their objectives (Schein, 2010).

Although following all of these steps may not guarantee that your poor performer will accept your assessment, you have done everything in your power to be kind, specific, supportive, and take the judgment off of the person and put it on their behavior. You can’t win em’ all, but if you follow these steps, at least the deck will be stacked in your favor.


Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83-87.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Latham, G. P., Almost, J., Mann, S., & Moore, C. (2005). New developments in performance management. Organizational Dynamics, 34(1), 77-87.


Rotundo, M. (2009). Conduct performance appraisals to improve individual and firm performance. In E. A. Locke (Ed.), Blackwell handbook of principles of organizational behavior (pp. 85-104). Malden, MA: Blackwell Business.


Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (Vol. 2). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


Sheldon, O. J., Dunning, D., & Ames, D. R. (2014). Emotionally unskilled, unaware, and uninterested in learning more: Reactions to feedback about deficits in emotional    intelligence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(1), 125.