Breaking Through Defensiveness: 5 Steps to Help Employees Hear Constructive Feedback

POSTED: Jan. 09, 2017

Program ParticipantsProviding difficult feedback to an employee is one of the most challenging tasks for a supervisor. Nobody likes having to tell someone that they are not doing a good job. And certainly nobody wants to hear it. Employee defensiveness, even complete denial of the situation, can often be a typical employee response. So how do we provide employees with the feedback they need, while minimizing their negative response? There is a way, but it requires a new approach to the situation on our part as supervisors. Let’s take a closer look.

Inference vs. Behavior

To begin, it’s imperative that we understand the difference between inference and behavior. An inference is our opinion, it is not always fact. It is a conclusion we have drawn based upon our observation of a person or situation. A behavior on the other hand is fact. It is something we can see someone do or hear someone say. We can describe it. A behavior is the most important piece in providing feedback. When we are offering feedback to one of our employees, we need to speak about behaviors not inferences. Below is a chart that provides a common inferences we may use and associated behaviors. Keep in mind, there can be many different behaviors that lead a person to make an inference.


Associated Behavior


Does not complete tasks on time


Uniform wrinkled


Unable to find information needed to complete reports

Not a team player

Does not volunteer to help co-workers


Needs to be told next steps in completing project

Bad attitude

Rolls eyes during meeting when new initiative is introduced

Poor communicator

Does not respond to emails within 24 hours

So why is utilizing behaviors so important in providing feedback? Because behaviors are facts. Inferences are our opinions based on what we observe. We are essentially passing our judgment on to someone when we are utilizing inferences. When employees feel judged, they immediately become defensive and can argue and deny what we are saying. Behaviors are factual and less likely to create emotional responses. They know they did it. We, as supervisors, know they did it. Now it’s up to them to determine if they continue to do it. The ball is in their court.

The use of behaviors is also important when providing positive feedback. For example, if after a meeting that I conducted, my boss tells me “good job,” does that really tell me anything? Sure I am happy that he recognized me, but I don’t know what he is recognizing me for. As an employee it is important for me to know so I continue doing that specific behavior. The following are examples of positive inferences and specific supporting behaviors.


Associated Behavior

Team player

Asks if teammates need assistance

Good communicator

Ask for understanding once directives are given


Admits mistakes

Solution focused

Identifies problem and offers a solution


Sets and achieves goals


Asks others opinions in meetings

Positive Attitude


Utilizing behaviors takes practice. We are so used to speaking in inferences and also receiving feedback in inferences. It takes a little extra effort, but it is worth it to give employees actionable feedback that they can utilize.

5 Steps to Feedback

Now that we know what words to use during our feedback discussion, we need to understand a model, that when utilized, will give us confidence as supervisors and also place responsibility on the employee.

The model for providing feedback includes 5 important steps:

  1. Question to Employee: What went well?
  2. Question to the Employee: What can be improved?
  3. Supervisor Statement: This is what went well…
  4. Supervisor Statement: This is what can be improved…
  5. Question to Employee: What will you do differently next time?

The first step in the model is asking the employee, “What went well?” This is probably an unusual question based on the way we have been providing feedback in the past, especially if it is critical feedback. But there are several very important reasons we do this. First, it starts on a positive note. It helps the employee take a look at the situation and discover what he or she did correctly. Second, it starts the model with the question to the employee. It gets the employee involved right away. Third, it shows that as the supervisor, you are wanting to hear the employee’s perspective, and not only that, but the positive side of it first.

The second step of the model again asked the employee a question, “What can be improved?” This is where we want to hear the employees’ thoughts on what happened and what part they played in it. Notice the question is not, “What did you screw up?” This is done intentionally. “What could you improve upon?” is also a forward thinking question. It is not a question about rehashing the past, but looking at a situation in terms of development and what can be learned when moving forward.

The third step in this model is now the supervisor’s turn. Again like step one, we are focusing on the positives of the situation. We are taking the time to discuss what we believe went well as we reflect on the circumstances being discussed. Reminder, make sure to utilize behaviors and not inferences!

The fourth step is our opportunity to share with the employee what we believe could be improved upon from our perspective. Again, we are discussing this as a teachable moment. A way to discuss what happened, but reframing in terms of what can be improved upon. Once again, be specific and speak about behaviors not inferences!

The fifth and final step of the discussion is the most important. It is the question back to the employee, “What will you do differently next time?” Why is this question so important? There are several reasons. For one, it gets the employee engaged in the next steps. It is not the supervisor telling the employee what to do, it is the employee telling the supervisor what he or she is going to do. The ownership begins and ends with the employee. Also, it allows us to know if the employee heard anything we said during the discussion. Does he or she really get it? Does he or she know what has to be changed? Of course the supervisor can add or revise anything necessary in this step, but it does place the ownership on the employee.

The Larger View of the Model

As we step back and look at the model as a whole, hopefully several items stand out. One, the order. It is very important that we are allowing the employee to engage in self-feedback first. It allows you, as a supervisor, to hear the employee’s perspective. This is critical because we can then customize our message. Since we have an understanding of his or her perspective we can begin from there.

When you consider it, the employees’ perceptions of the problems can go one of three ways. The first is that they tell us everything we have to talk with them about. They have full knowledge of the situation and what to do to fix it. Second, they get it partially correct. They tell us some of what we need to discuss with them, but we need to fill in what they missed to complete the picture. Third, they have no idea what they did and we have to tell them. No matter how it goes, we are getting information from the employees first and then customizing our message so they can better understand our perspective.

Another great benefit for utilizing this approach is that if we use it often enough, our employees will come to expect it and know that they have a part to play in it. They’ll realize that they need to come prepared to talk about their aspect of the situation, in a very deliberate, but also constructive way.

The model also communicates to the employees that as their supervisor, we are paying attention to the whole situation, both positive and negative. It communicates that we are utilizing this as developmental opportunity. It communicates faith in our employees and our understanding that the “next time” we believe they will do things better.

Other Uses

I want to acknowledge that this model works for many different situations, but certainly not all of them. If an employee has done something so severe or significant that it causes a threat to the safety of oneself or others, or he or she is causing harm to the organization, a more decisive, direct approach needs to be taken. But for all other teachable moments, this is a fantastic choice.

The model also works when you sit down to discuss a performance review. Simply start the discussion of the evaluation period utilizing the model, then get into the specifics of the review.

Another good use for this model is with a group or team after a project or an incident. It’s a great way to debrief the situation without placing blame, while looking toward the future.

In Conclusion

Referring to specific behaviors and not utilizing inferences provides more effective employee feedback, and the use of this model, assists any supervisor in offering actionable feedback. These two important concepts will allow employees to hear constructive feedback and reduce defensiveness. It also assists in empowering employees to take ownership of a situation and learn from it.