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My Employee Can’t Handle Criticism and I’m Addressing It in Her Next Performance Review

Takeaway: Performance and conduct need to be equally graded.

Q: Deal Paul,

I’m 28, a new manager, and about to deliver my first negative performance review. The employee who I’m reviewing consistently resists feedback and has single-handedly lengthened two major projects by six weeks or more in the past six months. When I provide edits to her work, she either misunderstands my requests or blatantly ignores them. She is a designer and claims that I’m stifling her creativity, however I don’t have similar issues with the other designers on staff. This employee is 10 years my senior, which could contribute to the animosity and the resistance to accept my design direction.

My goal with this performance review is to point out her inflexibility and create a plan to help her handle criticism more constructively. But I fear that it will come off wrong and that I’ll lose her to another company. If she can’t handle minor verbal tweaks, how will she take a major written notice? She truly is a talented designer, and I would like to keep her on staff. I’m looking for the best words to use to avoid a complete meltdown and retain her respect for the duration of our professional relationship. Plus, this is my first round of performance reviews, and I would like to show my boss that I’m capable of handling the pressure. What would your plan of attack be?

Paul's Advice: Stronger, real-time, reality-driven feedback

A: All great questions, no doubt, but your “plan of attack” needs to be coordinated with your supervisor. It’s important before you move forward with any individual piece of your plan to gain your supervisor’s overall feedback and approval, especially when dealing with more senior members of your team who may be in longer with the company or somewhat older than you. Don’t feel pressure to go this alone or impress your supervisor with your actions: leadership is often a team sport, and when you involve your boss early on—especially when there may be considerable pushback or downside risk—you’re playing your hand wisely. In short, if you and your boss are on board and the employee quits over this, then it’s a no-harm-no-foul situation. But if you do this on your own and the individual resigns, it could reflect negatively on you. So, knowing when to partner with your boss is a critical leadership skill, and this gives you an opportunity to practice and master it.

Next, it sounds like the individual’s overall performance is strong and appreciated, so remember that you’re only “failing her” in this one performance category. Depending on how severe the problem is, this one category may be enough to warrant a failing grade for the entire review period. More likely than not, however, this individual category will probably be isolated as one of eight or ten factors on the performance review form, so the “overall score” at the end of the review can still be healthy and positive (for example, “meets” or “exceeds expectations”). Knowing that this one category won’t sink the entire ship, you can proceed with a bit more transparency in terms of how her conduct is affecting you and potentially other members of your team.

Of course, finding the “best words” to deliver a written message on an employee’s annual review is important, but it’s also critical that she recognizes that this is being addressed in the annual review because prior attempts to resolve the problem weren’t successful. Your wording might sound like this:

“Alicia, in the area of communication, I awarded you a score of 2 out of 5, indicating that you are not currently meeting expectations in this aspect of your position. While the other areas of this year’s review reflect the solid qualify of your work product, creativity, and client satisfaction, communication with me remains difficult and challenging. As we’ve discussed on multiple occasions, I often feel uncomfortable as your supervisor asking for status updates because you sometimes appear to be annoyed by my interruptions. From my vantage point, you often appear to resist feedback. Specifically, when I provide edits to your work, you either misunderstand my requests or ignore them. For example, on the Heaton project, I suggested three significant edits. You ignored two and misinterpreted what I said in the one edit that you incorporated. As you are aware, that project was delayed by six weeks because our team was not able to coordinate the deliverables, and the editing stage was the primary holdup. That was also the case with the Vickers project where the delivery was four weeks late.

“Going forward, I expect that you will go out of your way to welcome my and other team members’ editing suggestions of your work. With your tenure and talent, I expect you to create an environment where others seek out your support and guidance. Likewise, there should be no more challenges to my constructive feedback where you make claims that I’m “stifling your creativity.” We’re all on the same team working toward the same deliverables and goals, and I expect you to demonstrate role-model behavior moving forward so that our team can perform at an even higher level in terms of alignment and coordination. Finally, I shouldn’t be made to feel like I’m walking on eggshells when partnering with you on a project. Moving forward, I will commit to bringing these matters to your attention on the spot and in real time as they occur.”

Overall, it sounds like you have a talented designer on your hands who isn’t performing well in terms of her conduct or behavior. Employees sometimes believe that as long as their performance is good, “you can’t touch them,” meaning you can’t do anything about their attitude. That’s not true. Employees are responsible for both halves of the circle: performance and conduct need to be equally graded during performance reviews. Therefore, consider adding the following language in the “Overall Comments” section at the end of the review:

“Alicia, with the exception of the missed deadlines relating to the two projects referenced above, your performance continues to excel. You’re a talented designer and key member of our team, and I respect you and appreciate your overall contributions to our department. My goal in this annual review is help you handle criticism of your work more constructively. However, you’re equally as responsible for your conduct and behavior as you are for your performance and productivity. Accordingly, immediate and sustained improvement is required in the areas of communication and teamwork.

“I expect you to assume partial responsibility for the concerns outlined in this review so that we can move forward on a more positive footing and put this behind us. That being said, I’m holding you fully accountable for your own perception management from this point forward. Simply stated, you are expected to create and sustain a friendly and inclusive work environment under all circumstances, including criticism of your work.”

To your final question about the individual being ten years older than you, simply keep that to yourself or, better yet, share your concerns with your boss. But it’s not really something you can share with the employee because it’s difficult to substantiate and easily denied. However, sharing that with your supervisor in advance of documenting the review and then discussing the conversation you hope to have with the employee is always a good strategy so that you and your boss are in sync and on the same page.

This is a challenging workplace matter, no doubt, but with your boss’s guidance and carefully worded language in the review, you should be able to make significant headway in turning around this individual’s “attitude problem” and flagging conduct. Even more important, you should be able to strengthen teamwork and start having fun. The annual review gives you that opportunity to level-set and reinvent your working relationship with your team and set appropriate goals. With this approach, you should be off to a good start.

Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is an HR executive who has held senior-level positions with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and City of Hope. A long-time contributor to HR Magazine, he is the author of many bestselling books, including 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. He lives in Los Angeles.

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