What to do when an employee doesn’t listen to your feedback

While watching a friend's dog (Sammy on the left), Grace was determined to sleep in HIS bed all the time instead of her own. This was very frustrating to me -- why must she 'steal' his bed -- and even the jacket left behind with the scent of Sammy's mom? We can't always know the motivation or reasons people (or dogs) do something, only enforce expectations when problems result. Here, the dogs slept fine in whatever bed they landed in, lucky for Grace that I didn't have to bounce her!

We recently watched a friend’s dog (Sammy on the left) and the entire time he was with us, Grace was determined to sleep in HIS bed instead of her own. Despite our encouragement to rest in her own bed, Grace continued to ignore our good advice. This was very frustrating to me — why must she ‘steal’ his bed — and even take control of the jacket left behind for Sammy with the scent of his mom? We can’t always know the reasons people (or dogs) do (or don’t do!!) something, nor is it our place to make a judgment about them because of their inaction. The role of a manager is to set an expectation and then enforce it — when problems result. Here, the dogs slept fine in whatever bed they landed in, lucky for Grace that I decided not to bounce her!

Someone I know has been unhappy in his current job for some time. He and his employer have had their ups and downs working together, almost all related to differences in their own styles, not dissatisfaction with the results of his work. The employee has gone as far to say that he wants a career change. He’s voiced this desire for some time now, and while the degree of his determination ebbs and flows, generally there has been a consistent theme. His manager has been very supportive, offering resources and being open to a change. But despite all the encouragement, he remains in his current job, with no evidence of doing anything to move himself in a new direction.

It’s very tempting for his manager to get frustrated that this employee hasn’t done something about his situation. This employee is smart, talented, and capable. If he truly feels that this job is not fulfilling, why doesn’t he do something about it?

I bet every one of us has experienced something like this in our own lives; when we recognize that we need — even desire — a change but find it nearly impossible to break out of our existing routine. Maybe it’s unhappiness with the job we’re in. Maybe we want to lose a few pounds. Quit smoking. Exercise more. Reach a new professional goal. When we can recall our own struggles to advance, it helps us have empathy to the obstacles someone else faces.

Yet when we, as managers, offer constructive feedback to show a person how they can get out of a jam, we have a tendency to expect that the person will immediately take action. We KNOW it is in their best interest to do so, so WHY DON’T THEY LISTEN TO US? (Yes, I’m screaming, isn’t that what we feel like doing when we can’t get an employee to change?)

When managing people, it’s important to do your best job at delivering feedback effectively, but remember that is no guarantee that they will hear you. It is not your role to make judgments on why a person does or doesn’t do something — even when they agree and say how important it is to them. If nothing is happening, then the bottom line is that the timing isn’t — yet — right for them.

Last Friday, I attended an inspiring women’s conference in Manchester, NH. The keynote speaker was Tory Johnson, long-time contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America. She spoke of her life-long struggle to lose weight. She walked us through her journey of multiple failed attempts to shed pounds. But after having a fateful conversation with her manager in December of 2011, a shift happened for Tory. In 2012, she succeeded in dropping 62 glorious pounds. Why then and not before despite the fact that she had always desperately wanted to have a healthier weight? (I highly recommend her book, The Shift, which I read from cover to cover last Sunday, to hear all the details first-hand.)

When you read the book (or hear her speak as I was lucky enough to do), you’ll learn that Tory’s manager delivered the feedback with extraordinary compassion and grace. There were no overt directives imploring Tory to take immediate action; there were no demeaning threats. Was that the reason Tory finally took action because her manager delivered the tough message so effectively? No.

Certainly it helped, but it wasn’t the real reason she moved forward. Her motivation came from within. My point in today’s post isn’t to say that the delivery isn’t important. It definitely is. But even if you offer your feedback in the best way possible, there are no guarantees that will make a difference.

Timing was the reason Tory took action. For the first time, she was ready to deal with the tough issues and behaviors that she had ignored before. Tory was open to hear the message that her manager delivered to her about her appearance. She had gratitude to her for the way the conversation was handled and respect for her because this manager was forthright to put the subject on the table — delicately, but clearly.

I want managers to do their best in delivering feedback, but it’s equally important to understand that it won’t guarantee the individual is ready to take action.

Here are my recommendations for what to do after you deliver your feedback: 

  • Step back and watch for changes. If there is the tiniest of improvement, stick with the person and help them in whatever way you can.
  • If you don’t see any changes, don’t take it personally. Remember, this is about them, not you.
  • Make any further decisions based on what is right for the organizational needs. What impact is this having on the job? The team? Like in Grace’s case, as much as I disliked her taking over Sammy’s bed, Sammy didn’t seem bothered by it. Let things work out naturally whenever possible, but know you may have tough decisions to make as well.
  • You need to do what you need to do and so does the employee. If those paths coincide, great. But it might be necessary to walk on different paths, too.

As for the aspiring career-changer, I wholeheartedly believe, as he does, that the job he is in is not ideal for him. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for him to change. If you’re getting frustrated by a lack of inaction by someone else, do what you can to help motivate, but realize that the work is really in the hands of the person to decide if and when they want to change.

Got a frustrating situation you’d like to discuss? Let’s talk!

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  1. Karen johnson on November 15, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Again another wonderful blog. Am important point to keep in mind is that this is their journey, their adventure and maybe there is something important they need to learn by continuing to be “stuck”.


  2. Robin on November 15, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Well said, Karen. It’s a different, but important, way to think about the value of being “stuck!” Thanks for adding your thoughts, I love learning with others!

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