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How to Give Feedback to Resistant Employees

Part II of the Feedback in the Workplace series

In our last topic, “When to Use or Ignore Workplace Feedback”, I provided a method for the employee to determine if feedback from a manager, client, or peer is genuine – and not based on bias or other ulterior motives.

We now shift our focus to the other side of the coin; the beleaguered manager who withholds feedback because of a resistant employee population that prefers gold stars to criticism.

Social Media Has Trained Us to Ignore Criticism

To appreciate the feedback challenge that managers now face, consider your own experience as a consumer where you may have been deputized as a marketing agent.  The setup will likely be familiar to you. A cashier, waiter, or hotel manager boldly asks you to post a glowing review on Google or TripAdvisor without asking you for direct feedback about their services.  If you comply, without offering candid constructive feedback to the provider of the service, then you are complicit in what I call a “skip-level endorsement”.  This increasingly common dynamic exists because society has cut out the middleman (or middleperson) on the way to advancement.  The narcissism of social media that only values what can be publicly curated, asks itself, “Why bother to ask for personal feedback when you can take a shortcut and lobby for an endorsement instead?”

Social media narcissism prompts the same question in the workplace as well, challenging managers in the form of these scenarios:

  • An employee who does not ask for feedback asks you for an endorsement or introduction to someone in your network on LinkedIn
  • Your employee wants you to advocate on their behalf for a promotion or raise despite the fact that they do not prompt you for thorough performance reviews or your candid observations
  • Your employee challenges your constructive feedback citing others who are happy with their performance

These expressions of entitlement are causing a growing number of managers to take the path of least resistance by avoiding candid feedback; a dangerous implication for employees who have no idea of their workplace strengths or hindrances. It is a slow and steady career killer.

If you are a manager who seeks a simple approach that you can use to take the fear and guesswork out of providing feedback, keep reading. 

Managers Have Many Feedback Phobias

Over a 17-year period, managers of all levels have shared with me that they are uncomfortable providing feedback for a host of reasons.  These confidences were shared in leadership conferences, manager training programs, 1 on 1 coaching sessions, and by members of the Association for Talent Development during my tenure as president of the New York City chapter.

Here is a summary of manager feedback phobias:

  • Fear of being accused of bias
  • Younger employees demand creative expression and want to be treated as unique individuals so they resist constructive feedback that they interpret as a need to conform
  • Fear of unanticipated reactions to feedback such as anger, crying, or silence
  • Lack of skill at handling unanticipated reactions
  • Lack of skill at handling feedback that is challenged
  • Fear that negative feedback will demotivate the employee
  • Fear of hurting the employee’s feelings
  • The employee should know on their own what they need to do and shouldn’t have to be told
  • If an employee receives positive feedback, they will expect a promotion

If you are a manager who indulges these fears, use the fail-safe OIS solution.

Once Again, OIS to the Rescue

If you want to provide effective feedback to your employee that will lead to sustainable improvement, use the OIS method.  Here is the acronym and an example:

  • Observation
  • Impact
  • Suggestion

Effective OIS Feedback

Manager:I’ve observed that you have dominated the last 3 meetings by using much more than your allotted time. (Observation)
Employee:I have a lot of important things to share with the team.
Manager:The impact of taking more than your allotted time is that others don’t get a chance to share their important things (Impact)
Employee:Well, I don’t know how to say everything I need to say in only 10 minutes
Manager:Practice ahead of time to be more concise (Suggestion)


By using OIS, you have taken the time to provide a concrete observation which makes it difficult to refute.  You have also shared the impact of the behavior, an element often missing in feedback.  The impact provides gravity, or urgency to your message.  If there is no real impact, the feedback isn’t necessary. And finally, you are acting as a coach and collaborator by providing a suggestion, paving the way for the employee to come up with their own suggestions.  The OIS approach does a good job of diffusing employee resistance rooted in feelings of entitlement, suspicion of bias, or frustration because it provides concrete elements that most intellectually honest people will accept.

Now consider an example of feedback without OIS:

Ineffective OIS  Feedback 

Manager:             You talk way too much at meetings.

Employee:           I do not. Can you give me an example?

Manager:             You do this all the time. (No Observation)

Employee:           If others want to talk, why don’t they just jump in?

Manager:             We’re not talking about others, only you (No Impact)

Employee:           I’m not sure when I should talk and when I shouldn’t.

Manager:            I shouldn’t have to spell everything out for you (No Suggestion)

This above feedback will have a negative impact.

Effective Feedback is Valid in Every Era

Resistance to constructive feedback is as old as the human race.  The first recorded example of a skip-level endorsement gone bad is found in the bible’s narrative of Cain and Abel.  Cain’s response to heavenly feedback was, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” OIS might have helped. In our present age of social media, affiliation can be self-empowering, but if taken to extremes, it can stunt workplace advancement through defensiveness and suspicion.  Managers who take the time to deliver OIS feedback will cut through these emotional barriers because they will have offered an observation, articulate why it matters, and discuss suggestions for growing a life-long career.

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Marv Burns
Marv Burns
5 years ago

Thankyou. Oh boy I’m dealing dealing with a super self impowered snowflake now. Ois to the rescue.

Brad Graber
Brad Graber
5 years ago

What a great way of explaining the right way to interact with employees. Really a great tip and an excellent read.

5 years ago

Really enjoyed this article! As a new manager, I fear I put too much emotion behind feedback (for both parties involved). But by putting an observation as the basis for the talking point it helps ease the emotion out of the conversation.