Navigating Emotional Minefields When Giving Performance Feedback

By: Kevin Eikenberry <>

March 3, 2017

As a supervisor, it is absolutely necessary that you provide your employees with performance feedback. And the process is often challenging and uncomfortable. After all, it is not easy for everyone to criticize others. That said, you can’t avoid it.

Just remember that the words you use are only part of your message. Your full message is a combination of the words you choose and the emotion you get across.

When you deliver performance feedback, the emotional part becomes particularly challenging. People receiving feedback are often already feeling vulnerable and emotional. They can be quick to believe that you are criticizing or threatening them in some way, and so they immediately put up their defenses.

That defensiveness, in and of itself, creates a potential minefield for supervisors. However, by understanding the emotional filter of the person receiving the feedback, you improve your odds of delivering the right message in the right way so that you minimize defensive reactions from employees. Additionally, while you do not want to be emotional when you provide feedback, you do want to frame your feedback based on employees’ emotional filters. To figure out what those filters are, answer two questions about each employee:

Are they faster-paced or slower-paced? In other words, are they quick to speak or are they more contemplative?

Are they more focused on data, information, results and activities? Or are they more focused on interacting with and supporting people? In other words, do they focus on tasks or do they focus on relationships?

Then follow this advice. (Remember: Your feedback should always focus on observable issues, for example, behaviors, words, actions, results and so on.)

*             Employees who are faster-paced and focused on tasks. Speak directly to how their behaviors, words and actions impede how quickly they will see results. Avoid saying anything that might indicate you don’t respect them.

*             Employees who are faster-annual-reviewpaced and focused on relationships. Show them how their behaviors, words and actions damage the way that other people perceive them, and explain how new behaviors will lead people to recognize them more often. Avoid saying anything that communicates that you don’t like them.

*             Employees who are slower-paced and focused on relationships. Tie their actions to how they can help others and how their contributions build the team. Rather than focus entirely on what you want done, make time to discuss how you want it done (with their input). Avoid pushing too quickly for results. Give them time to process what you have said before asking for a response.

*             Employees who are slower-paced and focused on tasks. Speak to the value and quality of their work. Be prepared to back-up anything you say with data, including quality reports, run reports, research data and so on. Keep your comments factual and observable.

Take action: Use the tips above as a starting point to understand your team. Schedule a feedback meeting with someone on your team within the next 48 hours to practice applying the suggestions. As you speak with people, observe their responses to your approach, and then make adjustments as necessary.


  1. Can you believe I once had a boss, who made me give a performance review to my employee, when I was only on the job for a month? The review was written by his last supervisor, and they did not get along. He was known as a cranky, biding his time, type of employee. I had no idea how he was going to react because it wasn’t a good review. I told her that I didn’t feel I was ready to do this after only one month, that I hadn’t written the review, and politely suggested she should give it to him since she knew him better. She refused. Whether it was a test for me or not…I gave it to him, and true to form, he overreacted, turned red, and yelled. I had even prefaced this with honesty, that it wasn’t my review, that it was not my judgment as I hadn’t observed him long enough. I offered to help him work on the issues, but he was too defensive to hear me. It was not a good way to start my relationship with him, nor the company.


    • It is indeed unfortunate that you were put in the middle. It sounds like that boss was insecure and had an issue with confrontation and problem resolution as well as no integrity or sense of fairness (to you). THe fact that you anticipated his reaction is admirable – I would say his reaction was totally uncalled for since you prefaced the whole meeting with an explanation. His rash behavior also tells me that the review was more than likely accurate, considering he didn’t hear a word you said at the start and yelled at you.


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