May 24, 2010

Demotivating conversation with manager

Recently, I was talking to Mark, an employee who just had a conversation with his manager. In this conversation the manager had given him some feedback on his work. Mark told me the feedback started with two positive points which were followed by a list of at least eight negative feedback points. Mark had taken notes and showed me the list of feedback points. He said had found the conversation very demotivating. While the manager was giving the negative feedback he had found it rather hard not to become defensive. He found most of the critique unfair. Despite of this, he told me, he had remained calm and kept from getting defensive. The most demotivating aspect of the conversation, however, had yet to come. 

When the manager asked Mark for a response, he thought for a few seconds and decided to be wise and to communicate constructively, instead of getting angry and defensive. So, while thinking these thoughts, he slowly said: "Okay ... I'll ... think about this and ... I'll try to do something about it." The manager looked at him for a few seconds and then replied: "You'll think about it, and try to do something about it? Well, if that is you attitude and if you're being this vague, I just know you won't do it!" Mark told me that when the manager had responded in this way, he decided there and then that he was not going to try anymore, saying: "It is really unbelievable how demotivating this guy is! I was really trying to take the feedback seriously but his way of responding made me so angry that I won't do it afer all."

After hearing this story, I wondered how differently the conversation might have proceeded if the manager had responded appreciatively and curiously, for instance like this: "Alright, good to hear you are going try to do something about this! Do you perhaps already have some ideas about how you might approach this?"


  1. What I'm curious is what are the temperaments of Mark and the manager. Receptive-adaptive vs. Linear-insistent? :D

    I get a p vs. j vibe here. :)

  2. I don't know Peter. I've never met the manager.

  3. Another horror story about giving feedback...
    thanks, Coert.
    The more I hear stories like this, the more I believe performance appraisal cause more harm than good. In order to work the person who gives feedback needs to have a good set of communication skills and genuine interest in the person - and that is rare.

  4. I think the purpose of the feedback must be kept in mind. If the purpose of the feedback is to get the person to improve on the things he is not doing well at, it might be useful to find out from the employee how highly he rates himself in one of the areas, then ask him how he might move ahead a bit. After he improves you can praise him for this and decide what to do next.

    Also, any time you give feedback and a person refrains from responding negatively that person should be acknowledged in some way as Coert showed in his post by saying "Alright, good to hear you are going try to do something about this..."

  5. Research that the usefulness of negative feedback is often minimal. It is usually very demotivating. An alternative is to communicate in a more goal oriented way by making clear how you would like the performance of the employee to become and to invite him to share his ideas about how he might achieve this

  6. Coert,

    I like that idea. Just communicate the goals. Tell them what you would like to see and ask him or her to share ideas about how they would achieve those goals.


  7. I have been thinking a lot about the Peter's point - What is the relationship between wiring, or personality bent, and SF process. I find in my work with executives, (Mostly D's (dISC), T's Myers Briggs, or Drivers (Adlerian Social Styles), that they seem far more comfortable with statements than questions, tell vs. ask. Not that provoking questions aren't helpful, but that they want to reach conclusions and solve problems far more quickly. Any experience with that out there?


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