How To Manage An Employee Who Can’t Take Criticism

employee who can't take criticism
Photo: Pixabay/jamesoladujoye

What To Do When Your Employee Can't Take Criticism:

  1. Ask to speak in private.
  2. Describe the facts of their behavior. (Ex. “You told me you already checked the numbers twice when I asked,” instead of “You were very defensive.”)
  3. Detail the impact that behavior will have on the team (“I worry this comes across as defensive, and will make others unlikely to work with you.”)
  4. Get agreement on how things can move forward. (“Is this something you’re aware of?”)
  5. Finally, don’t keep pushing if they shut down. Table the discussion for another time and continue giving feedback regularly.

When an employee can’t take criticism, it’s often because they interpret feedback as being judged.

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It’s not easy to navigate—these are people after all, with a whole collection of life experiences that we know nothing about. It’s entirely possible that a direct report has had bad experiences in the past that’s made them wary of criticism.

Since managers are not psychiatrists, nor should they try to be, the reasons why an employee can't take criticism mostly irrelevant.

Thankfully the solutions are the same.

When it comes to giving tough feedback to an unreceptive employee, it boils down to communication. How you deliver the feedback is going to be just as important as the feedback itself.

Be Direct, And Avoid Softeners

Photo: Pixabay/Mohamed_Hassan

If you know an employee tends to react poorly to criticism, the key is to avoid softening or using the popular “sandwiching” technique when delivering the guidance.

“Sandwiching” (the act of saying a positive comment before and after a negative one) is a tempting go-to for most managers. Understandably you want to reassure your direct reports that overall they’re doing well. But by utilizing positives to ease the sting of criticism you send the signal that any praise you give is either followed by a critique, or completely insincere.

In order to build a healthy feedback loop, you have to be direct. This can seem counterproductive when the issue is that a team member is sensitive.

The real trick here is to treat their inability to take in feedback as a separate issue.

For An Employee Who Can't Take Criticism, Stick To The Facts

Instead of addressing the defensiveness while it’s occurring, call your direct report for a one-on-one to tackle this feedback barrier specifically.

Using the think B.I.G. (Behavior, Impact, Get Agreement) methodology, and get right into the meat of the problem.

First, Describe The Behavior:

“The other day when I spoke with you about ending your sales calls on a friendlier note, and you told me, ‘I think I’m plenty friendly.’”

By outlining the behavior as fact instead of your interpretation (ex. “You were very defensive,” “You’re overly sensitive,” “I can’t get through to you,”) and avoiding judgmental language, you can more effectively sidestep a fight over what motivated the behavior.

Then you move on to the impact that behavior can have on the person, team or company:

“I worry this comes across as you being defensive, which can make it more difficult for coworkers to give you feedback or suggestions.”

Finally, Get Agreement On How You Can Move Forward:

“Are you aware of how this comes across? Is this something you can address?”

This method, while effective in its simplicity, may not completely avoid a defensive response. But at the very least you may be able to plant a thought about how certain behaviors come across, instead of assuming any of the emotional motivations behind them.

If the response is something like, “Well, I’m not defensive, I legitimately believe I’m friendly enough.” Then it’s time to flip the table:

“That’s fair. Tell me, is there anything you think I could improve when it comes to communicating feedback to you?”

If this still solicits a defensive or emotional response, then cut the discussion short for another day. There’s no sense in hammering away when someone has closed ranks. A simple, “Why don’t you think about it and we can continue the discussion next week.”

At the very least this allows their defenses to come down over time, which has a greater chance of letting the information sink in.

There's No One-Size-Fits-All Leadership…

Consider this an ongoing process and not a one-conversation-solves-all situation. People come with all sorts of habits and baggage. And while it’s not your job to pry, it is your job to find the right way to communicate to your employees as individuals. What works great for one may not work for another, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ leadership.

Meet with them one-on-one consistently and repeat the think B.I.G process to help you avoid judgmental language. When in doubt, ask how you as a leader can better communicate constructive criticism to them.

Be prepared to receive their feedback graciously to set a good example. All you can do is offer guidance. The onus will be on them to consider what works best for their own improvement.

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CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at