Once in a while in my consulting work I come across a person impervious to feedback. Although all of us are initially reactive or defensive when we get tough input on changes we need to make, eventually our wise mind kicks in and we make necessary growth-oriented changes. Not so for some who resist accurate feedback and are seemingly blind to their need for change. So,
What do you do when you face such a wall of resistance?
Some reasons behind feedback resistance is that the person
1. Shuts down in the face of pain.
A history of painful hurt often shapes how a person responds to difficult feedback. Their past wounds seem to be covered by emotional callouses. A typical response to frank input is to either push back with a “what do you mean I need to change?” Another response is that the person checks out or dissociates from the experience by saying “This is not happening to me”. As a result your feedback falls on deaf ears.
2. Lives with intractable narcissism.
Feedback deniers can also be incredibly self-centered people. They experience a marked tension between an inflated self-image and the reality of what others actually see. A massive blind spot is evident. Despite an exaggerated self-confidence and distorted sense of self the person is actually deeply insecure. All of us have a bit of this tendency to minimize our growth challenges. As one writer put it,
“We like to see ourselves as strong and in control but we are more like a fragile eggshell that is easily broken – This makes use feel deeply vulnerable and not in a good way.” – Dzigar Kongtrul.
However, the narcissist seldom embraces this fact.
3. Shows Low Social Intelligence
A person unaware of his/her emotional world and that of others is usually clueless in the face of feedback. It is as if his/her life is directed by the amygdala (the physical seat of emotions). The world seen through the lens of their emotions becomes their perceived reality. Here feedback is a non-starter. They react but do not respond. So the chance of persuading them to change dysfunctional behavior is very low. In the end social pressure, i.e. the organization not putting up with their bad behavior is probably the best way to force change
How do we best respond to such fragile, hurt, and/or defended people?
1.Don’t let them lead the team.
Often people who resist tough feedback are highly talented. As a leader sometimes you cannot afford to flush them out of the organization. They can be your star performers. However, because they cause emotional havoc everywhere they go you never let them lead a team but confine them to an individual contributor role.
2. Appeal to their sense of self-importance
In the case of the narcissist the best strategy is for the leader to leverage the person’s narcissism. One manager gave the following feedback to her self-important colleague, “If you don’t learn to share credit with and stop ticking off your colleagues you will jeopardize your promotion to a director position”Such an appeal to extrinsic and not intrinsic factors was the leverage the manager needed to get this difficult employee to make the needed behavior changes..
3. Show compassion without compromise.
Those impervious to feedback need our compassion. But compassion does not mean that we explain away the difficult behavior. We should not remove our boundaries that protect the rest of the organization or keep us from being abused. “I sense this is difficult for you” is balanced against“Back off ” or “Make the necessary changes”. Being kind does nor preclude being firm.