“Nobody wants to work with your attitude of negativity.”
“You need to develop your communication skills.”
“You argue a good deal, and I think you should take advantage of the counseling offered in your EAP.”
The above are some of the attempts at corrective feedback that I experienced in my working career. None of them led to a behavior change.
Giving Feedback is Challenging
Giving negative or corrective feedback is challenging and even more so to people who are already hard to get along with. I am a difficult person, and I can attest that difficult people do not know they are difficult. They know they are treated differently and feel awkward about it, but they are not aware of exactly what they are doing to earn the treatment.
- Experts on work relationships state that corrective feedback should never be given when the giver is emotionally out of balance. Have the conversation when you feel centered and are sure about what you to say. The problem is anticipating the reaction of the difficult person – often defensive, explosive, and argumentative.
- Knowing this, the other preparation for the giver is to be concrete and specific about the behavior that is difficult. The difficult person does not know what they are doing; they have to be told.
- And describe how the behavior impacts others: clients, colleagues, and customers.
To Be Effective
To be effective, this feedback only works if we ask, “Do you know you are doing this? Are you aware of this impact?”
Rarely is a difficult person told what the behavior is that someone doesn’t like; they are almost never asked if they know they are doing it.
If they aren’t aware of the behavior, the giver of feedback has the option of saying, ”OK. Is it acceptable to you if I point out that you are doing it the next time I observe it? I promise to do it in private?”
Or if the response is, “Oh that’s just my way,” the giver needs to remind them of the impact. This has to be something the difficult person values. Hurting someone’s feelings may have limited power. Impacting the financial bottom line is usually something everyone values. The fact that they have been doing it all their life doesn’t mean it hasn’t had this impact, and nobody has told them, nor does it mean it has to continue.
Another response can be, “but she started it,” and we are reminded of children trying to pass on the responsibility for conflict. The giver of feedback needs to state that the person she cares about is the one in the current conversation.
Most powerful: asking at every possible point, “Do you know this?” and “Is this the impact that you want?” and “Do you realize what will happen if you don’t change?” Remind them that you value their work. Be positive about their accomplishments. Getting fired is always a negative impact. It hurts the difficult person and the work environment, and the feedback giver.
- The goal of this process is for behavior change on the part of the difficult person with the least hostility. The question about what the difficult person wants leads to negotiation about future behavior. The giver of the feedback may suggest some physical cues to remind the difficult person if the behavior is repeated. There may be a discussion of that to do instead when one has been doing the behavior for the better part of one’s life.
- Recommending counseling and therapy is certainly an option, but my bias is to treat this feedback as a normal thing: Your doing this behavior makes it hard for the rest of us to get our work done, it is leading to many complaints from customers; do you know you do this? Is this the way you want to impact them? Can you do something else? Are you willing to change? Do you want some suggestions?
- Schedule regular check-ins and keep them; they can be short. Point out when you see the behavior change and remind them of the more positive result. Use the verbal or physical cues to remind them when they do forget and act in the difficult way once in a while.
In My Experience
My experience is that difficult people want to know what alienates others; their choice to be difficult has not been a conscious choice. They will make a conscious choice to change their behavior if the negative impact of not changing is strong enough.
The three statements shared with me did not lead to behavioral change. When I heard them, I nodded and said, “OK,” and wondered what the feedback giver meant. The corrective feedback that helped me be less difficult was: “Do you know what you do when you get frustrated? You mutter to yourself, stomp around your cubicle, and throw files around. Your negative energy is really distracting to your colleagues. They have trouble concentrating and can’t always hear their phone calls. It’s hard to get the work done. Did you know that? Is that what you want? “
I had no idea that I was doing this or that anybody even noticed what I was doing. I didn’t know, and I didn’t want that for my colleagues. I liked my boss, and I liked my job. I worked hard at changing.