When an Employee is in Denial

When was the last time you sat down to review an employee’s performance and been on exactly the same page? Invariably, a manager’s assessment of performance and an employee’s self-assessment have gaps. In some cases, employees rate themselves more harshly than their managers do. More commonly, though, employees come to a performance review unaware of any shortcomings in their performance and are often surprised to discover that improvement is required.

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In most cases, this perceptual disconnect develops when

  • performance reviews are infrequent (e.g. annually or less often);
  • in the absence of regular feedback; or
  • when feedback is ambiguous or indirect.

For a conscientious employee who strives to do well, a critical performance review under circumstances like these feels like an ambush. To reduce this gap between management and employee perception of performance and avoid bushwhacking your people, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Offer timely feedback: catch people doing something right and tell them right away. And when you see behavior or results that are not acceptable, tell them that too, as soon as you can.
  2. When offering this timely feedback, remember to praise publicly and correct privately. While praise and recognition are powerful motivators for many people, being disciplined or “scolded” in public is humiliating and can prevent your message from being received.
  3. Incorporate regular peer feedback (like our own Kudos and 360 feedback features). Sometimes people have to hear things from more than one source to accept it. Recent research has also found that employees are more responsive to (and more inclined to believe) feedback from peers.
  4. Create an environment of continual learning where everyone is expected to upgrade on a regular basis. Make regular personal and professional development part of the culture so it won’t be considered discipline when an employee hears that an area of performance requires improvement.

When the Gap Can’t be Closed

Occasionally you’ll have to deal with an employee who refuses to accept any suggestion that their performance is less than stellar.

  • The bully who is absolutely convinced she’s just “looking out for the organization” and everyone else is trying to get away with slacking off.
  • The perpetually late employee who insists that he still does more work than everyone else and besides, what difference can 15 minutes make?
  • The customer support person who insists that she’s great with the customers and that’s why the “crazy” ones keep getting put through to her.
  • The caustic supervisor who shreds everyone’s self-esteem but refuses to take the communications training offered because it’s “all in their heads.”

What can you do with employees who just won’t acknowledge their own shortcomings?

  1. Start again with frequent feedback. Don’t “save up” critical feedback for the official performance review.
  2. Make sure that corrective feedback is provided in a professional and non-confrontational way so it’s less likely to be interpreted as a personal attack.
  3. Document and share specific examples of unacceptable performance or behavior. The more factual evidence you have the harder it will be for your employee to ignore or rationalize your feedback.
  4. Incorporate peer feedback if it’s available.
  5. Be very clear in providing critical feedback; stating expectations and how performance falls short of those expectations, and describing consequences if performance does not improve.
  6. When coaching for improvement, schedule shorter, more frequent coaching sessions to avoid overload and better support the formation of new habits.
  7. Recognize performance improvement and encourage continued movement in the desired direction.

If the employee’s denial is firmly entrenched, accept that you may not be able to affect positive change. The first step in healing, growing, learning and changing is acknowledgement that the current situation does not work. An employee who refuses to acknowledge the existence of a problem is unable to overcome that problem. In that instance, the steps described above will form the basis for dismissal for unacceptable performance.


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