when an employee gives you the silent treatment after getting feedback

A reader writes:

One of the people I manage gives me the silent treatment when I correct him on something or ask him to do something differently. I don’t ever correct him in a mocking way or publicly. In the hours that follow the correction, he will avoid eye contact with me, position his body language away from me, and only speak to me if I’m asking him a question. He’s usually over it by the next day and we go back to our usual friendly working arrangement/interaction, but during the hours that the silent treatment is happening, I feel emotionally drained.

The silent treatment makes me think twice about correcting him the next time something happens, which is dangerous because as we are involved in communications and mass media, quality control is very important. He’s essentially training me on some level to not give him feedback. I don’t need to be best friends with my subordinates, but as a caring human being, I do need to work with people who do not resent me.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 124 comments… read them below }

  1. The Artist Formally Known As UKAnon*

    Can I just say that I love your answer Alison? In my younger days I was known to react like this sometimes (in fact see the open thread – topical!) but that was as much down to a lack of confidence as anything. He could just be sulky, or it could be something else. I think approaching this with understanding but being prepared to go down a more disciplinary route is perfect.

    1. Tim*

      Agree that AAM gives an excellent answer.

      The one thing I’d add is that for some, not wanting to speak about feedback immediately can be due to a desire to process and think on it first. So it can be okay, as long as that deliberation is leading somewhere and isn’t just an immature expression of frustration.

      1. Chocolate lover*

        +1 to your comment about processing information, and came here to say something similar. After feedback, I often need to retreat into my own head to reflect and think it through. Especially if something was a surprise to me, then I need to process it before I can have a productive conversation.

      2. SophiaB*

        Yes, very much this. My manager and I have a horrible personality clash (we’re working on it!) and sometimes when she gives me feedback I have to go away and walk it through a few times before I can respond constructively. I usually ask permission to go and do this, so she knows what I’m doing. It’s always better than me responding before I’ve had some processing time though!

      3. Koko*

        IIRC in the original comments there was quite a debate going over whether the employee was actually “giving the silent treatment” with passive-aggressive intent, or whether they were simply embarrassed and just trying to keep their head down and work quietly until it didn’t feel quite so awkward or tense.

        1. Erik*

          Yes, this was my exact thought! When a manager gives me feedback, I like to just take time to absorb it internally and focus extra hard on actually implementing it. I’m a terrible multi-taker, so it’s too much to ask me to both make a correction in my work process and to be otherwise interactive and responsive at the same time. It doesn’t mean that I took the criticism badly. In fact, sometimes when I’m really quiet after receiving a course correction, it can mean that it was a positive epiphany moment, so positive that I’ve decided to devote 100% of my mental abilities for the day into implementing it. I feel like a good manager should not mistake focus for resentment.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on.

  2. Preaction*

    I just had this happen to me, but with my boss (who, now two weeks later, demoted me). Is there a way to handle that reversed situation?

  3. anonanonanon*

    I agree with Alison’s comment, especially the part about how the employee might have earlier instructions contradicting what you’re telling him or that he thinks your tone is off. You mentioned that your feedback isn’t mocking, but are you 100% certain that your feedback doesn’t come off as condescending, passive-aggressive, or brusque? I’ve found that there are certain people who try to be polite or nice when giving feedback who sometimes come off as condescending without meaning to sound that way.

    1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      I work with one of those people, unfortunately. His sincerity default reads like a user car salesman, but his heart is in the right place. He has no idea how offputting he can be in conversation when he drops names, birthdays, anniversaries with complete interest yet with a big smile, wide eyes, and that upbeat telemarketer tone. Receiving compliments from him is very weird, and I can’t imagine what it would be like as his direct report to get feedback from him.

  4. TheSnarkyB*

    I actually disagree somewhat with this advice. I think it would be important to know whether this employee is acting in a snotty or immature way, and whether it’s really getting in the way of the boss’s other processes. If this person is actively and annoyingly pouting and being a passive problem, that’s not ok. However, I noticed this phrase in your suggested language from boss to employee:
    I need to be able to give you feedback without you becoming upset.
    Why? I don’t think that’s true. Getting upset is about the feelings, but the boss can’t decide what’s ok for this employee to feel. I think Alison your response was more to the point of the employee’s actions. So the boss may want to come away from his own inhibitions a little more and say “I get concerned and upset myself when I see you that upset about feedback.” The boss needs to own that maybe the employee is feeling defensive and embarrassed, and maybe the boss can just ignore an embarrassed employee (especially if it only lasts through the day, and isn’t super visible to others!), and can try to resist the impact.
    OR the employer could say “I’m worried you may be taking this feedback too hard, based on your responses you seem very upset afterward which makes me worry I can’t continue to be candid. Please know that candid and frequent feedback, even critique, is a part of this job and doesn’t indicate anything other than that. If your standing here were at risk, I would be totally transparent, so please try to take this feedback as just feedback, and an opportunity to grow/improve.”

    1. Blight*

      I think the biggest reason for most people acting like this is the feelings of shame or embarrassment that comes from being dressed down. This is the exact reason why my boss always makes meetings involving negative feedback until the very end of the day, that way you are on your way out and won’t feel awkward while you are trying to deal with your feelings and get your work down professionally.

      I am sad to say that I cannot handle feedback well, I am known at work to break down because I am a perfectionist. My boss and I actually had a talk about it and I told him (while starting to tear up!!!) that he should just ignore the tears and awkwardness because it is just how I naturally respond. We even joke that the more I cry the better because then he knows that I took the feedback to heart, if I take it without a single emotion then he’d know I couldn’t give a frog about what he is telling me.

      1. Random citizen*

        I think the biggest reason for most people acting like this is the feelings of shame or embarrassment that comes from being dressed down.

        I have been guilty of the silent/awkward thing after situations where I made an obvious mistake with one manager I had for this exact reason. It feels weird to continue joking and making small talk with them when we were just talking something I did wrong that hurts the company (in a small way, but still, I’m supposed to be helping the company). It’s different if it’s a routine, “Hey, could you do blank differently,” but for one-time specific mistakes I was definitely a little awkward afterwards.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I think this is a really important point about crying. A crying person is absorbing and processing what is being said. I’d rather deal with a crying person than an angry/yelling person, any day. And, right on, the boss just needs to keep talking through and ignore the tears. You have a good boss, in my opinion. I think in a little while you will start feeling better about how you handle feedback.

    2. Rat in the Sugar*

      I really like this response. The employee can’t help the way he feels; the issue is about the way that he’s acting, not the way that he feels. Being told that I wan’t allowed to feel upset when something was upsetting me is something that I would find very…upsetting, lol.
      He’s allowed to be miffed, he’s just not allowed to act that way.

    3. McDerp*

      Great answer and everything I was thinking myself as I read Alison’s response. You can’t discipline away feelings. Some people just have to process. Clearly the boss already understands what’s going on, so why does it need addressing? Just let him have a wallow and he’ll feel better tomorrow. Or OP could start doing what Switcher’s boss does in a comment below and give feedback at the end of the workday.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Having worked around people who use the silent treatment from time to time and having seen it used in a family setting, I believe that it causes a significant amount of damage in the long run. And yes, I have seen it break down all types of relationships.
        It is one thing to be quiet and think things through. It is a whole different thing if the silent treatment is being used in a “punishing manner”, a withholding of sorts. We don’t have enough to go on here, to decide if the employee is punishing or processing.
        I would like to know, though, if the place caught fire and the boss was the only person available, would this employee tell the boss or would his silent treatment be more important to him. Yes, an extreme example to illustrate a point. For the balance of the day that employee has made himself unavailable to the boss. Granted, if the boss asks a question he will answer but he is not able to initiate conversation. So what does he do if something is going wrong and he needs to initiate a conversation? He can’t. He can’t tell her that the teapots on line three are coming out defective. He can’t tell her that a customer call and canceled a large teapot order. So how does she know if he is encountering problems that she should be aware of? She can’t.
        While I’d be the first to say, “respect your own emotions and the emotions of other people”, but in a work situation the ability to communicate with others is not optional, it’s a necessity. If he routinely (key word: routinely) is shutting down on her after some feedback, this is a problem. I have to agree with the idea of working on the reaction and if there is no improvement then escalation is might be necessary.
        If he is willing to do this to the boss, what is he doing to his coworkers?

        1. Rat in the Sugar*

          Just because the employee doesn’t initiate friendly conversation doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll refuse to speak up if something happens they need the boss for. After all, they will speak back when the boss speaks to them and won’t sit there silently, so it makes sense to think they would speak if they needed the boss for something and wouldn’t just sit there watching the machines jam up or whatever. That behavior seems much more extreme than just silently pouting, so it seems like too big of an assumption to be realistic to me.

          Additionally, if the employee is allowing things to go wrong because they don’t want to speak out loud to the boss, that’s a much bigger and totally separate issue from just “silent treatment”, and could be addressed and disciplined when (if) it happens.

        2. Koko*

          We don’t know that he isn’t able to initiate conversation, only that he hasn’t done so. If this happens for a couple of hours every now and then it’s quite possible that no new situations needing the manager’s input have arisen during those isolated periods.

        3. fposte*

          According to John Gottman, the researcher who studies marriages, it’s one of the most damaging things you can do in a relationship.

          But I take the point of other people, too, that not initiating conversation with somebody for the few hours remaining in a day isn’t necessarily the same thing as stonewalling somebody. And it might be a valuable experiment for the OP to try giving feedback at the end of the day and see if that resolves the problem.

        4. Argh!*

          I agree about “punishing.” Silence while sitting at a desk in a corner doing one’s work is different from silently snarling at people or refusing to speak when spoken to.

        5. aebhel*

          Well, we know that the employee is answering direct questions and doing his work, so I don’t see how this is even actually ‘the silent treatment’. I mean, does the boss expect to dress someone down and then go back to chatting with them in a friendly manner? That’s not how human beings work.

          I actually completely disagree with Alison. I think the boss just needs to give the employee some space after a reprimand. If he’s back to normal the next day, I fail to see how this is such a huge issue.

    4. LBK*

      You can’t force someone not to feel a certain way, but you can absolutely set an expectation about the expression of those feelings. Feel mad, upset, annoyed, frustrated, whatever you want – but reacting like a child any time you get negative feedback as a result is unacceptable, period. That’s a response that can and should be coached out of professional adults.

      I also think a boss saying “I get upset when I see X” is wildly inappropriate; I wouldn’t look too favorably on a manager who brought their emotions into a performance discussion, because my job isn’t to make you feel a certain way.

      1. Argh!*

        Hear hear! I’d much rather say “I expect professional, courteous, helpful conduct at all times no matter what your mood.” If being friendly and accessible is essential to the job, then the person perhaps needs a referral to EAP for anger management.

      2. Jenny Islander*

        Childish? Being criticized makes it impossible for me to be all cheerful and non-fraught with the criticizer for a while–even if, or maybe especially if, the criticism holds water. In fact, I used to have to avoid all interaction with the criticizer beyond the inescapable minimum for the rest of the day in order to prevent myself from ugly-crying at work. I think recognizing that doing otherwise innocuous thing X would at this moment produce unacceptable result Y and planning one’s work accordingly is pretty darn mature and self aware. People who charge ahead going “I’m OK, I’m OK” end up losing the plot more often IMO.

    5. J*

      Great comment, I see a lot of instances in social interactions where people, rather than expecting you to manage your feelings, instead expect you to not have them at all…think “don’t get mad, but…” or “I don’t want you to feel bad, but…” which is all about making sure the bearer of bad news doesn’t have to experience any discomfort. Which isn’t fair, because people can feel however they want, so long as they manage those feelings.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        When people preface things with those kind of statements, I automatically feel bad, mad or whatever, it’s like some kind of psychological trick my mind plays with me

    6. AndersonDarling*

      Agreed. When I’m informed that I made a big mistake, I am mortified and embarrassed. I feel like I let everyone down and I just want to get through the day without saying anything to anyone. If the employee in question comes back to work the next day and has recovered, then I don’t really see a problem with it.
      I’m assuming that the silence follows important feedback given in the OPs office, and not little things like “you forgot your badge on the counter.” I think it is a sign of dedication to take the feedback so seriously.

    7. Jules*

      Yes! This!

      When my daughter screams, “You are upsetting me.” at me after her behavior was corrected. My answer to her is, “You choose to get upset instead of accepting what I said. I was not mean, I was polite and I explained that that behavior is not acceptable as well as the consequence of behaving that way.”

      Now granted that she is 5 years old and I regularly use big words with her but the concept is the same. In fact, in a few days, the employee got better. I totally get how he feels. When I get corrected, I get upset with myself, I feel embarrassed because I should have known better. But as I have told many peers and managers before, tell me if I am doing the wrong things or am misdirected, I might be upset for a day or two but I will get over it and learn from it.

    8. Blue_eyes*

      Yes to all of this. I see a lot of myself in this employee. When I get negative feedback I feel defensive and embarrassed. During that time I often get noticeably quieter than my usually chatty self. While I’m processing those feelings I will quietly go about my work but only talk to others when necessary. By the next day I’ve thought it over and am ready to incorporate the feedback in to my work and resume friendly chatting with coworkers.

    9. Bwmn*

      I completely agree with this. While I try to be receptive of feedback, for mistakes or more critical issues I do often need time to more or less ‘lick my wounds’ and rebound. This isn’t to say I want to come across as sulking or unable to do my job – but maybe take a slightly early lunch, do a more rote task where I can mentally check out a bit, etc.

      What I also wonder though is if there’s something regarding the layout of the office or how the OP/employee work that makes that kind of “time to process” more noticeable as the silent treatment. In my current and previous jobs, my bosses have had offices away from where I am (be it office/cube/desk). So post criticism, I have some physical space from my boss where I can process and move on. If the OP and employee’s physical workspace are much closer where that kind of time reads more passive aggressive. As others have mentioned, giving criticism at the end of the day or maybe before the OP has a meeting and will be physically separated from the employee.

      While crying at criticism or shutting down for a period of time (which is how I read this more so than exactly giving the silent treatment) in some working environments can be very unprofessional and problematic – I think lots of people on this site have showed examples of working with their managers where that kind of emotional response isn’t a problem.

    1. Argh!*

      But excellent. Alison’s example sounds too much like couple’s therapy to me. In a work situation you can absolutely say “this is not personal – this is about getting things done right & on time.” Someone with a fragile ego will respond much better to that than to an accusation of acting in an immature way that disrupts the workplace. The boss sometimes is the one who needs to grow a pair and not take it personally if people don’t like something. I am absolutely willing to have a conversation about a conversation but not about feelings. I’d rather say “do you disagree with this?” to open it up and accept criticism rather than go the couples therapy route and criticize my employee.

  5. Ginger Bread*

    I love this answer! Especially since it gives the employee a chance to speak about what works best for them.

    I had a manager who would always wait until things were going great to come give me corrective feedback. Frankly, nothing takes the wind out of my sails faster than getting nit-picked, even if it’s something I do need to work on, after working through the weekend and getting a big win.

    My manager noticed my attitude and had this conversation with me and I explained that I prefer to have these conversations closer to the time the even occurred, and if possible, not in the midst of a time I’ve been putting in a lot of overtime/going above and beyond.

    1. A frustrated employee*

      … I prefer to have these conversations closer to the time the event occurred…

      This this this this this.

      I was recently put on a PIP for some behaviors I exhibited while dealing with a frustrating, confusing, and mercurial inter-departmental arrangement. Those behaviors occurred in early July. I heard about this for the first time during my disciplinary hearing. The words “insufficient people skills” were used a lot.

      You bet I’m going to be quiet after that. I need time to process. I need time to get over my frustration and anger and fear. I need time to figure out how I can react in an appropriate way, figure out what they were even citing, and change whatever behaviors those were.

      It has taken until this past week to finish getting the full story. It turns out to have been a very different issue than the one they brought to me. Of course. Things are dandy again as if nothing happened, but now I’m left suspicious that something is going wrong and no one is telling me.

      So, again: please, please, try to give feedback as soon as you can do so. It risks coming out before the full picture is clear, but it also gives you a better chance of actually finding out what the problem is!

      1. A frustrated employee*

        Important clarification: The behaviors they cited occurred in early July. The PIP was mid-August.

        1. Rana*

          Ouch, that’s hard. That much time between event and feedback could easily make you wonder what else you might have unknowingly been doing wrong in the interim, and start second-guessing everything.

        2. Anoning it Up*

          Ugh, I feel you. I recently had an awful conversation about something I (apparently) messed up in February, and the conversation about it was in late August. 6 months after – Why would you even bother?! What can I do about it now? I think they said they were waiting to see if I improved – but how would I improve, when I never knew that something was wrong! These convos need to happen close to the event.

        3. Argh!*

          I have remained silent a few times in order not to say the wrong thing while I wait for instructions from my manager or HR. The last thing anyone wants is a lawsuit or to do something that would be the opposite of what HR wants. You can’t un-say something. After reading your post I think the next time I should say “that’s really unacceptable” at the least.

      2. alexcansmile*

        This is my biggest management issue too. I had a position where I was doing something (minor) for three months. Turns out it was minor on my side but had larger ramifications for other members of the team. But they didn’t tell me I was doing it wrong FOR THREE MONTHS. And then we had an email string about it and they didn’t tell me how I was supposed to be doing the thing – only that I wasn’t supposed to do it the way I was. I left that company very shortly afterward. Every interview I’ve gone into since then, I mention that I am a person who wants feedback right away. Good or bad, give it to me right away, don’t let me make mistakes/do a frustrating thing over and over. Tell me once and I’ll fix it and move on.

  6. KT*

    So, I take feedback very personally. I try really hard not to show it, but if I’ve been corrected or been told how I’ve screwed up, no matter how politely, I know I shut down a little. It’s not due to any resentment–it’s shame on my part that I screwed up. I’m an achiever and work really hard; when something falls through the cracks or I make a mistake and someone else catches it, I’m really bummed on myself.

    I’m sure I’m quieter/less social at those moments, but it’s not anything towards the person who gave the feedback–it’s me dealing with guilt/embarrassment and trying to move forward.

    1. Eliza Jane*

      This was exactly what I thought. I, too, need time to process critical feedback. If I have done something incorrectly, and am corrected on it, I am going to be embarrassed and ashamed and guilty. Until I’ve worked through those feelings a bit, I’m going to avoid triggering it by interacting non-essentially with the person who corrected me.

      It’s not the “silent treatment”, which makes me thing of juvenile power struggles where you are punishing the person by not talking to them. (“Jane, please tell Wakeen that I’m not going to discuss the Handle Restoration reports until he apologizes, but if I WERE, I would say…”) It’s a human need to recover balance and adjust to a new dynamic.

    2. Mirinotginger*

      Yeah, when I get feedback that’s less than positive, I sometimes end up in a shame spiral where I’m the World’s Most Horrible Employee And A Failure At Life And Deserving Of No Good Things Ever. It’s a thing I’m working on with my therapist, but the point is that if they aren’t responding angrily, or as said upthread if it’s not ‘punishing’ silent treatment, the employee might just need time to work through that mental action. As a manager, maybe just try giving that employee feedback towards the end of the day. Don’t make it a huge conversation (as long as it is genuinely a need for processing time). That employee is entitled to feel how they feel, and work through negative feedback how they need to.

    3. aebhel*

      Same. It doesn’t even sound to me like he’s giving the silent treatment; being a little withdrawn after criticism is NORMAL, and I’m kind of annoyed that the boss thinks employees should pretend to be chipper and sociable after a dressing-down just so the boss doesn’t have to feel bad about it.

  7. Switcher*

    I think the reason is important here and you can’t just refuse to tolerate that this is how something needs to deal with the feedback.

    Once I was brought into the office and given a very bad review, I actually left the office in tears because I was ashamed of my behaviour that led to the issue and was very upset that I disappointed my boss. I had to sit with my supervisor for the rest of the day and I could NOT bring myself to speak to her unless I needed to. Part of it was because I was humiliated and wanted to avoid conversations with her and another was because I could break down because I was still very raw. Also, who wants to chit chat after they were just given bad feedback and are trying to process it.

    That is just how I am because of my past experiences and personal issues, I would hope my boss would understand that my embarrassment is temporary and not try to make it a big issue that has consequences, because really that makes it worse. For a person like me Alison’s advice would probably stress me out because it would feel like a personal attack because I would no longer be allowed to deal with the situation the way I need to.

    I think as long as the employee speaks when necessary and is doing work then there is no real issue to tackle. But if the behaviour continues into the following day or it becomes petty then it is time to say something. This is why my boss now waits to give any employee bad news until the end of the workday, we can process and mope at home and come in the next day with a better attitude.

    1. Esquire47*

      Yes, this happened to me too! I was embarrassed and upset, and on the verge of tears. Luckily I was able to go to my office (which is located far from my manager’s office) and privately process everything. I was grateful I didn’t have to see or interact with my manager right away. I agree that we can’t use “feelings” as an excuse to be unprofessional or rude– that said, human nature being what it is, sometimes it really helps to have some breathing space to calm yourself down and refocus.

  8. Jillociraptor*

    When I first started working, I would behave like this because I wanted to make sure I came off as contrite. If I went back to normal too fast, I worried that my boss would assume I didn’t take the feedback or my performance seriously.

    I think the advice is really great: seek more information about what’s causing the employee to act that way, and take seriously the idea that it might be something in your behavior.

    There’s one more thing I’d add though. Taking feedback is as much a skill as giving it, and I wonder if it could be helpful for the OP to coach the employee on what they expect to see and hear when the employee receives feedback.

    1. Blue_eyes*

      Good points Jillociraptor. Especially about coaching the employee. I imagine different managers want to see different things when they give feedback. Some might want contrition, others apologies and promises, and still others may want to hear next steps.

    2. Argh!*

      I don’t want contrition unless it’s something horrible. I just want to see some evidence that there will be a change. Some people are so sensitive you can’t even ask them to change a few words on a memo without them getting angry, hurt, or defensive. Every little thing isn’t an existential statement about your worth as a human being, but some kids were brought up that way and we inherit that baggage in adulthood

  9. Student*

    I think this answer is a bit off-base. I agree with AAM that it would be great if the employee accepted feedback with more grace, and the manager should attempt to have that conversation.

    However, I do think the OP manager has some responsibility to persevere at an important part of his job – giving feedback – even when it is made modestly uncomfortable for him. Would he stop giving feedback to a subordinate that became hostile, or cried, or smiled politely but never made the requested changes? It’s your job to manage those people too. If you can’t manage them, then there are other options available to you, including firing them. Those options do not include not-managing them because it’s making you uncomfortable, unless you want to be the one to change jobs. I’m not unsympathetic; it can be really hard on a manager to deliver tough feedback and get a negative reaction. That’s part of what you get paid for, though.

    I’ll take the OP at his word that this is “the silent treatment”, which I associate with the employee actively snubbing you. I have to admit that the description came off to me as something else, though – an employee who is disappointed that he let you down.

    1. fposte*

      I agree that it’s still the OP’s responsibility to give feedback, just as it’s an employee’s responsibility to give information to a boss who receives it poorly.

      But the boss and the OP’s employee should both be aware of what they’re risking by making that responsibility harder to discharge, and the employee has more to lose.

      1. PontoonPirate*

        What stands out to me is the part where the OP says she’s emotionally drained from the experience. While I’m sympathetic to that, that can’t be the impetus for needing the employee to change the way he reacts to feedback. A business need to be able to communicate normally, yes. Manager’s feelings are hurt? No.

    2. LBK*

      I’m a little confused by how what you said disagrees with AAM? I read her answer as saying just that – that the OP should continue to give him feedback and set the expectation with the employee that she’s going to do so, and that he needs to learn to process it better because it’s not going to stop.

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        I think it’s a difference between how problematic you think the behavior is. If the employee just gets quiet for the rest of the day, but responds to questions asked and goes about their work, it’s hard for me to imagine that ever being something warranting a disciplinary approach. I like the idea of opening a conversation about it to get to the root of any actual problems, but it feels a lot like the manager is used to being able to make friendly small talk, and when the employee gets critical feedback they’re not inclined to make friendly small talk, and that makes the manager uncomfortable. If that’s the case, and the “silent treatment” isn’t actually impacting work so much as it’s bumming the manager out for a couple hours, it seems overblown and harsh to expect the employee to be friendlier as they process, as opposed to expecting the manager to just deal with the mild response for a couple hours.

  10. Cruella DaBoss*

    I understand the silent treatment. My grandmother always told us if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

    1. Jeanne*

      Completely. What am I supposed to say after my boss criticizes me for something he told me last week I should do? Or he treats everyone else differently but picks on me? Or if I say anything after the criticism I’m called defensive? Silence is the only thing that doesn’t get me in more trouble.

      1. Argh!*

        You could say “Oh, I thought that’s what you told me to do last week” rather than being defensive.

        1. Argh!*

          I mean, if you *are* defensive, you may be called defensive. If you’re being bullied that’s a different thing and not what’s going on in the OP. If you are being picked on, is it for things that other people also do wrong? Or are you really not well suited to the job and making more mistakes than other people? Managers never treat everyone the same way because everyone performs differently.

  11. Retired!*

    I love the part about phrasing it as a question for feedback from the employee. You need to be sure you are a consistent, clear, and fair manager, and you need that 360 feedback to be sure that you are.

  12. christine j*

    Like others above, I tend to become very emotional when receiving negative feedback. This isn’t something I’m proud of and it’s something I really struggle with, and have all my adult life. I try to hide this because it is unprofessional, and because I don’t want my supervisor to be uncomfortable about giving negative feedback! In a recent one on one meeting in which my supervisor was very negative about elements of my performance I had to struggle extremely hard to keep tears down and remain professional. I listened, took notes, thanked my supervisor for her feedback and told her I would give it serious consideration, and got out of there about 5 seconds before tears started flowing. I had to go close my office door, cry for a few minutes and just DEAL. I then couldn’t have had much of an interaction with my supervisor for the next hour or two without crying, so I needed to minimize contact with her for the rest of the day, for the sake of both of us and our professional relationship. This wasn’t me being bitter or cold to her as a result of the feedback; this was me trying desperately to maintain professionalism and a working relationship in which negative feedback is possible.
    I don’t agree with Alison here. As long as the employee continues to do his job and be basically respectful, I think the manager should be sensitive that feelings may be a bit raw immediately following negative feedback, and that the employee may be doing everything he can to stay as professional as possible in spite of those feelings. Even though the employee’s demeanour may be a bit odd after receiving negative feedback, the manager shouldn’t stop giving him feedback. He has to be able to take it, and he knows it, but as others have said, he can’t help how it makes him feel!

    1. Bertie*

      I agree with you. It seems that the employee takes a couple of hours to quietly reflect on the negative feedback. I don’t see anything in the letter that describes the unprofessional disrespect that “silent treatment” implies. Seems as though the OP is off-base in wanting the employee to be chipper, chatty, and cheerful immediately after receiving difficult feedback.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes, I was coming to say the same thing. If the employee needs to go retreat quietly every time you give him a minor criticism, like ‘Hey, you forgot to sign the bottom of page 2 of the TPS reports ” or “could you make this font a little bigger?” then yes, OP has a right to be concerned. But after big feedback, its totally normal to want to reflect, and to feel a bit like you let the boss down.

        The other part of this could be how the boss gives the feedback. If all I get is a email saying “come to my office in 3 hours, we need to talk” I am going to be so worked up mentally by the time of the meeting that even if it is minor criticism (or praise, or something totally random like needing to sign an insurance form) I also would probably need some quiet time to decompress.

        And I agree with everyone else that not making chitchat or being quiet except for 100% necessary interaction is not the same thing as giving the silent treatment.

  13. BuildMeUp*

    If I were the OP in this situation, I would be bothered, too. Not wanting to talk is debatable, but avoiding eye contact and turning away from the OP? For a full day? That seems excessive to me, regardless of the reasons behind it.

    I struggle with receiving negative feedback, too, but that doesn’t stop me from being polite and professional afterward, and I think it’s fair for the OP to expect the same from her employee.

    1. Theoretical*

      I think it depends on how frequently the employee gets feedback, good or bad.

      If it’s a novel experience, or there’s a long period between incidents, it is a scary thing. If you didn’t even know something was wrong, it’s startling. If, as others have said, the feedback is delivered in a way that feels antagonistic or condescending or simply “You did wrong” instead of “Something went wrong, let’s see what we can do to fix it,” it’s going to be hard to find a way to respond.

      If it’s not novel, it could be because they keep getting negative feedback. That’s problematic for both sides. Employees can feel frustrated, or afraid for their jobs. If it’s about the same thing, it’s especially troubling because they may have been trying to fix it; knowing that it isn’t working is demoralizing. The employee might even feel like they’re being harangued or nitpicked. How do you respond to that?

      Also: if your boss brings this up early in the day, it’s distracting. No one likes to hear they’ve made a mistake. Some people handle it differently, but sensitive, well-meaning people will take it in and immediately try to figure out what happened and how they can fix it because they want everyone to feel good, but also upset because they did something wrong at all. Either way it’s going to distract from work, and trying to balance that upset with daily tasks doesn’t leave much time for shaping an appropriate conversation.


      People handle this differently. Certainly there is a measure of appropriate office behaviors. But the employee does get over it after a day. He doesn’t do anything wrong, from what I read, he just acts differently and much more quietly/self-contained. I really don’t see the problem unless it’s affecting his work.

      1. BuildMeUp*

        I guess I’m not reading it as quiet/self-contained. If it were just the employee not making chit-chat, I would understand a little more. The “turning his body language away” and avoiding eye contact seems more than that, to me. It may not be intentional, but to me that gives off very loud “don’t talk to me, I’m mad at you” vibes.

        I completely understand that people process things in different ways, but personally, I would be frustrated if someone responded to me like this!

        1. Rana*

          See, I’d read it as “I’m ashamed of myself; I can’t look you in the eye right now” or “I’m feeling very upset; if I look at you I’ll lose my composure.” (Because that’s how I would act, if I had those feelings. If I were mad, I’d be glaring, not avoiding eye contact.)

          1. Koko*

            Just like when you come home and your dog has torn the trash can apart he won’t look you in the eye!

            1. AE*

              Dogs don’t feel shame. They avoid eye contact because they expect you to hit them. Stop hitting your dog! He doesn’t remember getting into the trash! Their memory is like 5 minutes at most.

              1. Koko*

                For the record, I don’t own a dog. My understanding was that avoiding eye contact was an act of submission when the alpha is being aggro and is not necessarily linked to abuse. (There’s an awful lot of “guilty-looking dogs” photos and videos on the internet and I’d hate to think all of them are being abused.) The parallel being that the employee shows deference/submission to the manager when the manager dresses him down.

          2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

            Yes! I’m a crier. That’s just a fact about me. I *could* possibly spend months or years in behavioral therapy to try to fix it (possibly successfully, or possibly not). Or, people can just get over the idea that it’s unprofessional to have emotion of any kind in the workplace. If I cry at work, I usually say something like “Sorry, I’m a crier” but honestly the best way for me to not cry in situations where I’m processing harsh feedback is for me to just be in a corner working quietly by myself for awhile. If OP talks to their employee and its established that there’s no big problems with OP’s delivery of feedback and the employee is just processing, I think it makes sense for OP to just try not to take it too personally (and continuing to ensure that actual work isn’t affected).

  14. Former Retail Manager*

    Need more info….”turning his body away and avoiding eye contact”….how close are you physically to this person? If I receive criticism or “feedback” if you will, I’m generally not in a good mood either. It’s an instantaneous reaction and no matter how valid the points made may be, I am still upset, mostly with myself. At this point, I do not want the feedback giver in my space. I want to retreat to my cubicle, process the statement, and focus on my work. And depending upon the severity of the feedback, I too would probably avoid talking to the boss unless it was necessary to do my job, in which case I’d be polite and professional. But if I could have my druthers, I’d rather they just go away and let my mood pass. Also, what kind of feedback is this person being given? Change the font, tweak the presentation, or you royally screwed up and almost lost the business a client or impacted a valuable business relationship? Being upset to the point of taking the actions mentioned over relatively small corrections seems odd to me. However, if you royally screwed up, it seems logical to be both disappointed in yourself and perhaps embarrassed and have no desire to face the person who just pointed out your shortcomings.

  15. Lisa*

    How do you know that this person wasn’t treated horribly by a past boss? I was, and it affects how I react to feedback many years later. After being berated for years and gaslighted into thinking I was a disaster on the verge of being fired for incompetence / replaceable for almost 6 years did a real number on me. I am silent most of the time because of that, and work myself into a panic attack when I know feedback is coming. I almost quit before my review, because I was convinced I was going to be verbally destroyed like I was before. Jumping in front of a bus seemed like a better option than what I imagined would happen. After it’s over, I end up replaying the feedback over and over in my head and trying to make sense of it all. Any little thing said has a huge effect on my attitude and performance because it brings back so many bad memories even when it is reasonable / normal / true feedback. Your employee may just have workplace PTSD from a past job, and have nothing to do with you.

    1. fposte*

      How you’re treated by a past boss doesn’t change what your current workplace needs from you, though. That’s an example of something that’s an explanation but not a justification. Alison has a post that I’ll link to in followup about how to avoid hurting yourself by bringing bad behaviors learned in a toxic workplace to your next one.

      I mean, I have all the feeling in the world for, say, somebody who’s been routinely yelled at by a manager whenever reporting anything that went wrong, but I’m still need you to do your job for me by telling me when something goes wrong.

    2. AE*

      Which is why I prefer “I expect you to behave appropriately for the situation” over a script that includes asking more than the bare minimum from the person.

      I have PTSD from a previous job and I still occasionally have nightmares about the place. I went to therapy for it. If I have been “triggered” by something my boss says, she has the right to expect me to respond to here and not to some person in my head that she’s never met.

  16. Jo*

    I also don’t quite agree with Alison’s advice here. What the OP is describing isn’t actually “silent treatment.” The silent treatment is a punishing tactic used to express displeasure with another person, and it involves ignoring the person entirely and refusing to acknowledge them or respond at all when they speak to you. It really is bad behavior.

    It sounds like the employee is making an effort to avoid the OP due to his own discomfort, but he’s answering her when she asks him questions. Honestly it sounds like a pretty normal way to deal with feedback, and he’s not *mis*behaving, in my opinion – unless there’s more to it than the letter describes. Seeing that you’ve unintentionally made someone feel bad isn’t fun, but those feelings are the OP’s to deal with, as the manager and the one with authority. It sounds like she is invested in her employee’s approval and feels put down herself if he isn’t happy to hear everything she has to say, which is not his problem to fix.

    Rather than calling him out on this and telling him he needs to change, which would probably make things worse instead of better, she should frame this as wanting to help improve their dynamic from both sides. Something like: “I’ve noticed you seem uncomfortable after I give you constructive feedback or correct you, which is normal, but I wanted to check in with you about that. I’m sure you realize it’s my job to give you feedback at times, for both our benefit, and I want to make sure we have good communication around my expectations and your performance. Can you think of any ways we could make it better?” He might say no, what you’re doing is fine, and the visible discomfort is just part of how he absorbs things. Knowing you see what he’s feeling and aren’t blaming him for it may be enough motivation for him to keep it in check. People go above and beyond for sympathetic bosses.

  17. Eliza Jane*

    This question and the response honestly upsets me, and it’s because of the sliding scale towards “everyone please just be robots at work, okay?”

    We’ve talked before here about crying at work, and how it’s not okay. I wish more people were tolerant of crying in the workplace, but I can acknowledge that a lot of people aren’t. That said, if I’m trying not to cry in the workplace, I am going to be behaving EXACTLY the way this guy is. I’ll avoid eye contact with everyone. I’ll position myself so that my back is turned a bit away from everyone. I’ll try not to enter conversations. If I need to, I’ll be brisk and efficient and avoid small-talk. Because if I start to relax that emotional distance, I might start crying.

    So okay, I have found a way to fix my emotional reaction that was upsetting you. I’m not crying at work. But now my quiet efficiency and focus on completing tasks is unprofessional, too? Interacting casually with other people when I’m in a heightened emotional state is exhausting and difficult. Per the OP, the employee is still answering questions when he needs to. He’s doing his job. Why the hell can’t we just let people have emotions? Would the OP rather he didn’t care that he’d messed up?

    We want people who are passionate and care about their work, right? The fact that a person needs space to deal with frustration or shame at messing up seems a logical and forgivable offshoot of that.

    1. LBK*

      The problem isn’t necessarily having an emotional response, it’s having a disproportionate response. From my experience, people who don’t take feedback well don’t take *any* feedback well – even really simple, common, straightforward stuff like “You put the spout on upside down on this teapot, can you make sure to fix it for next time?”

      That is not a situation that merits being close to tears, even if it was a serious error – it’s fine to feel frustrated with yourself or embarrassed. I take a huge amount of pride in my work and I certainly kick myself if I screw something up, but I also know that I’m overall a great employee and that I care about what I’m doing, and I’m not going to let one piece of negative feedback tank my entire perception of myself to the point that it affects my emotional state.

      If your manager is putting you on a PIP or otherwise indicating you’re close to being fired, then maybe it’s justified to have such a strong reaction. But I really think for most situations being described here, people take one-off feedback too seriously – they instantly lose perspective on their strength as a worker as a whole any time they’re told something bad, and that’s why it feels so personal. People view it as a judgment on their entire professional persona rather than just an instance of a problem that needs to be fixed.

      Even the best employees in the world mess up occasionally. Being a good employee doesn’t mean being perfect, it means understanding your mistakes and caring enough about doing things right that you use those mistakes as learning opportunities rather than seeing them as blows to your ego.

      1. Eliza Jane*

        It’s great to know that you’re sufficiently in control of your emotional state that you never overreact or get worn down by your emotions. Not everyone is. 6.7% of Americans suffer from depression. 18% of adults have anxiety disorders. I’m one of them. I suspect a lot of other people here are, too.

        It’s not as simple as just saying, “Don’t feel that way,” and a lot of time, the behavior that you’re seeing is the person meeting you halfway.

        1. LBK*

          I have depression and an anxiety disorder, too, so clearly having mental health issues and being in control of your emotions are not mutually exclusive. That’s why I go to therapy – because I recognize that the way my brain works means I don’t process or manage emotions normally. In fact, one of the main reasons I finally got into treatment was because it was impacting my work performance to an unacceptable degree and I realized I couldn’t continue to expect others to manage around my emotional volatility.

          1. Eliza Jane*

            Whereas I’ve been in therapy for years and on medications and still need my emotional space before I can recover from critical feedback. Like I said, I’m not talking about bursting into tears. I’m not expecting people to “manage around me.” But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to need some space after getting criticized, whether or not other people think that criticism warranted an emotional reaction or not.

            Honestly, if I wanted to not have negative emotional reactions at work, I could accomplish it by deciding I didn’t care about my work and I was only showing up for the paycheck. I choose to stay deeply invested in my work, to commit myself to the idea that my success comes in bringing success to my team and my employer. And that means that when I am doing something that is negatively impacting the team, I am upset when I find out about it. Not if it’s just a casual, “Oops, that’s upside down,” but most significant negative feedback, yes.

            I have emotional reactions. I am a person. We are designed for emotion. Not reacting isn’t as simple as downloading the add-on that blocks the feelings. I thought I was doing the professional thing by doing what I needed to in order to get through the day, process the feedback, and work it into my daily routine. But I guess it’s just literally psychologically impossible for me to be professional, since both the emotion and the thing I do to suppress the emotion are unprofessional.

            1. LBK*

              You can be passionate about your work and want to help your team without becoming so emotionally invested in it to the point that it’s tied to your self-worth. I’m hoping you’re just referring to yourself and not in general, because if you’re implying that I must not care about my work and I must just be showing up for a paycheck since I don’t have strong emotional reactions when things go wrong, that’s frankly kind of insulting to me.

              Like I said, I have a huge amount of pride in my work. I love what I do and I get frustrated with myself when I do things wrong, too. But I recognize that being able to fix the problem and move on is also a critical part of contributing to my team and being a productive, successful employee – exactly as with the OP, if my coworkers or my manager know they can’t come to me with a problem without it causing me to shut down for hours at a time, then that throws a wrench into the team’s productivity and efficiency. Being a good employee isn’t just doing the technical parts of your job well, it encompasses everything about you – your work, yes, but also your attitude. FWIW, the “I guess nothing is good enough for you!” attitude isn’t a great one.

              I have emotions, too, so enough with the “sorry I’m not a robot”-esque comments. I’ve just done a TON of work to learn when something is worth getting emotional over and when I need to tell the evil little critter that lives in my brain and leeches me of my self-worth “No, you aren’t in control today.”

          2. Eliza Jane*

            To give a slightly different metaphor — I once lost around 20 pounds. It was hard. I was doing a lot of diet control and exercise. I was hungry and unhappy most of the time. Then I switched doctors. And my new doctor told me I needed to lose weight. “Even just 5-10 pounds will make a big difference!” But I was already in a lost-weight state. 5-10 more pounds felt like an insurmountable goal.

            It feels like the same thing here. “Don’t cry in the workplace!” It’s hard, but sure, I can do it. And now this post is saying, “Okay, so your new state of not crying but doing this other thing instead is also bad. Don’t overreact by feeling it at all.” The request to change isn’t taking into account the effort that many people are already putting in, or the fact that the exact behavior being discussed IS the coping mechanism that lets me avoid the “worse crime.”

            1. LBK*

              Well, I think some element of this is also taking too literal a message from “don’t cry at work”. It’s not so much about literally not shedding tears, but rather the overall point is “don’t let work affect you on such a high emotional level.” And okay, maybe it’s unfair to use shorthand for a concept when you mean something more general, but I wouldn’t say that physically preventing yourself from crying is actually the right solution to the problem. It’s a stopgap coping method that doesn’t fix the underlying issue that leads you to be vulnerable to work crying in the first place. That’s why it’s “not good enough” as a solution.

          3. Eliza Jane*

            You know what, I think I am overreacting to this conversation in exactly the way I’m discussing. I’ve had a too-stressful couple of months (including 3 different medical emergencies for my kids and waiting for a biopsy result on myself), and I’m letting it bleed into other stuff. I’m going to do what I say I do and retreat from this conversation — please know that it’s not a silent treatment, just me taking some space to rebalance.

            1. boop*

              I think I agree more with you, although I’m also extremely transparent with my emotions, so maybe I’m biased.

              Seems reasonable to have a dislike for the usual “it’s not a problem for me, so it shouldn’t be a problem for anyone” response.

              1. LBK*

                That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying if it is a problem for you, then work on getting the help you need to make it not a problem. Yes, mental health issues are complicated, often take years to address and are generally never truly fixed, only coped with. But we can’t argue for mental health to be taken seriously as a medical issue while also expecting others to treat it for us by accommodating the effects of that issue. If you’re not able to perform the basic requirements for your job, then you’re not suited for that job, just like you would be with any other medical condition that impaired you from being able to accomplish your job.

                I don’t say this to be cruel, I say it to be realistic, because this is what put things in perspective for me and got me into treatment. Uncontrollable emotions in depressed people are a symptom of a disease, not an immutable aspect of your personality, and understanding that and how to manage around it is part of getting treatment. It’s challenging because those same symptoms are what can make it so hard for the treatment to work; it’s a little like telling someone with a broken leg to walk to the hospital. I resisted treatment for almost a decade. But I wouldn’t expect others to work around my disease beyond accommodating my treatment (eg allowing me to flex my time to go to weekly appointments).

      2. christine j*

        This also assumes that we are all getting constant, balanced feedback from our managers that gives us a full picture of how we’re doing. Regarding the story I told above, I happen to have a manager who almost never gives positive feedback. We have different cultural backgrounds and attitudes to work, and I don’t really blame her. She expects me to know when I’m doing well and not expect pats on the head, and really that’s fine. However, in the instance above she chose a moment when my workload is heaviest of the year, I was working insanely long hours and frankly I was getting great results, to give me a lecture about my “attitude problem”. Basically, I’d been a bit snippy when asked to do even more than I was already doing. I shouldn’t have been snippy about it — I should have more evenly explained my current overworked state and inability to take on anything else. So the feedback was valid, and she wasn’t wrong to give it. But being pulled out of an insanely busy day to be lectured about my bad attitude, with no acknowledgement of the awesome and super-hard work I’d been doing that month? It was my responsibility to listen professionally to that feedback without reacting emotionally or lashing out, take it on board and adjust my behaviour accordingly, and I did so. But is really shocking or especially unprofessional that I also needed to close my office door, cry for ten minutes, and avoid non-essential contact with my manager for the rest of the afternoon?

        I really love the idea of doing this kind of thing at the end of the day, because these emotional reactions also have a negative impact on my productivity — I can’t focus very well on my work for the next hour or so when I’m so upset.

        1. LBK*

          That’s true, but I think you can also then learn to take your manager’s feedback with a grain of salt – so that even if you suddenly have a bad conversation out of nowhere, you can still maintain perspective by acknowledging how meaningless their opinion has been up to that point. Don’t give emotional credence to feedback from a manage who hasn’t proven to have an accurate perspective. I think it’s difficult because they hold your job in their hands, so understandably you have an interest in making them happy, but I think too that you can do what I referenced and separate out “this is a thing I need you to do in order to do your job” from “this is me calling you a bad person”.

          1. christine j*

            I can do that by the next day. I can’t do it in the moment. I cry. It’s hardwired. It also isn’t something that’s at the threshold of pathology. I don’t have an anxiety disorder or any kind of diagnosable mental health concern in need of treatment (and no, I’m not in denial or something — I’ve been down that road before, years ago, and I know what “time to seek treatment” feels like.)
            Incidentally I am female and know a lot of other women who also experience this. I do tend to think the total denigration of emotional responses in the work place (even when managed professionally) has a fair bit to do with patriarchy. And yes, I noticed that the possibly-emotional employee in the letter was a man — but the no-crying-in-the-workplace thing, combined with our culture’s gender norms, of course only makes things even worse for more emotionally responsive men than they are for women!

      3. AE*

        “People view it as a judgment on their entire professional persona rather than just an instance of a problem that needs to be fixed”

        Exactly! Those people need professional help, or perhaps medications. Taking impersonal things personally is not healthy. They are suffering and nothing the manager can do will truly address it. We can learn to treat different people differently, but we work with people, not delicate butterflies. Look at the perennially unemployed or underemployed closely and you will find people who cannot manage their emotions or have emotional disorders. Crying or sulking at work on a regular basis is just not acceptable and never will be. If we don’t allow people with hair-trigger tempers we should also acknowledge that people with other emotional disorders hamper the workplace. Nobody wants to walk around on eggshells all day.

    2. AE*

      “Space” yes. Unprofessional snits, no. I can see scheduling meetings for the half hour before lunch so the person can cope on their own time, but allowing a person to act like a sullen child in an environment where they are expected to behave professionally is not possible. The OP seemed more personally distressed than worried that work is suffering so we can’t be sure it’s a matter of needing space or something else. I have worked with hundreds of people and I have only encountered two who couldn’t manage their emotions — or rather their workplace interactions. I deal with slights from my boss (she can be very patronizing) and I never let it interfere with the way I behave at work. I addressed something today at work that’s been gnawing at me for about a week. Nobody would know because it’s not appropriate to take out my feelings on the whole office, and I didn’t have a chance to talk to her until today. If your inability to manage your emotions gets in the way of your day-to-day effectiveness, it will ultimately detract from your entire career path. One of the people I mentioned above would love a more interesting job but his chance of advancement in our workplace is virtually zero because of his emotional lability. Nobody wants a boss who is like that. A low-level grunt who is like that is a problem for the manager and a few other people. A manager like that is a whole nother level of institutional pain.

    3. Oh no not again*

      It depends on your workplace, but it might be a good idea to be upfront with management about your emotional/mental needs. I’m pretty upfront about my depression at work now (kind of had to be, had a breakdown at work). I’m lucky they’re understanding–they don’t mind the occasional crying and even told me if I need to take a short walk because I’m upset to do so (just so I tell them that I’m leaving and will be back soon). I know not everyone has a workplace this understanding, but if you’re pretty sure they “get it”, it might be worth it to let them know. I wouldn’t know what to do if someone burst into tears, but if they told me ” I’m okay, this is just how I deal sometimes/I’m dealing with a little stress right now/etc..” it wouldn’t be awkward. Even though the older I get the more of a crier I am, I don’t know how to react when someone else cries. Giving a heads up without the details makes it less awkward for everyone.

  18. RVA Cat*

    I see it’s been mentioned upthread about giving negative feedback at the end of the day, so people can process it.

    Another tactic might be for the OP to give negative feedback right before going to lunch, or to a meeting that does not include this employee. That allows the OP to disappear for an hour or so awhile he processes the critique.

    1. BeenThere*

      I disagree with the before lunch idea, because not everyone takes a lunch break and not everyone wants to spend their lunch break thinking about work which is impossible when the’ve been given valuable critical feedback.

      I prefer the end of the day using the commute time to process is helpful.

  19. Lexi*

    This one of the few comments of Alison that I really disagree with. I read it and immediately thought of all of the stories about strangers telling women walking on the street to smile. I wonder if the OP is much more outgoing than her employee?

    I’m pretty reserved and analytical so when I get feedback, I’m first embarrassed because I missed something, then working through whether the feedback is valid, then concentrating on whether I missed anything else, and then wondering if I missed anything in the conversation. If the employee is getting the work done, communicating properly (asking & answering questions appropriately), and making corrections following feedback, it is not unprofessional to take some time to process.

    1. Argh!*

      Processing your emotions internally is just fine as long as you don’t let it interfere with your job. That’s the real issue.

      1. aebhel*

        But it’s not? He’s doing his assigned work and answering the boss’s questions, he’s just not going out of his way to be sociable.

  20. Margaret*

    I think I also disagree here as some of the above commenters, pending two questions: (1) how often/what type of feedback is it being given (are we talking “don’t forget to sign your TPS report on both the front and back”, or “the advice you gave the client is wrong and cost them $50,000”), and (2) what is the behavior actually? The headline says “silent treatment” but literally *nothing* in the actual description of their behavior sounds like an actual deliberate, passive aggressive silent treatment.

    The behavior totally sounds like I would behave after feedback from a significant screw up (nowadays), or after any feedback more severe than “please proofread your emails” in my first or so of working. It would be a combination of an internal processing style, disappointment in myself, and embarrassment. And very possibly trying not to cry, or trying to avoid letting you look directly in my face so you can’t see that I’d been crying. It’s not that I can’t or don’t want to take feedback, but if it’s at all significant and I’m upset with myself, my anger often presents with tears. And as someone mentioned above, I know that’s deemed unprofessional, so not looking at you is my trying to maintain a facade of professional despite my biological responses that are very hard to control (I try to, and it’s gotten easier over the years, but I can’t always.).

  21. The Optimizer*

    I think there is a difference between giving corrections and asking someone to do something differently vs. something like a review with negative feedback. A review, I can understand and accept someone being upset if htey do not like what they are being told. However, correcting an obvious mistake or telling someone you would like something done differently when it is your job to do so should not generate such drama. It’s unprofessional and unnecessary when it the reaction they have every time they are told they need to correct a mistake is to put and not speak.
    I had a situation like this – one of the biggest parts of my job was to review very large payments. If there was a mistake in an interest rate or if the payment details were wrong, the consequences were major for our company. If I had to tell one person in particular that she had made a mistake, she would get very angry with me and start slamming things around her desk, huffing and puffing the entire time. It got around to me that she didn’t approve of the way I told her about the mistake so I would change my approach from talking to her to sending an email but it had the same reaction, supposedly because I was being too formal about it. So, i then went to post-it notes but these weren’t good either because someone could read them if they came by her desk.
    I finally had to just sit her down and ask her what her problem with me was because I had run out of ways to inform her of her mistakes but it was my job to do so and we were going to have figure out a way to make it work. It got better after that but marginally. You just can’t win with some people!

  22. Amy*

    Yeah I don’t really agree with Alison here, either…as I was reading the post, I was thinking “the employee isn’t giving you the silent treatment, they’re just embarassed!” In some ways, I wonder if OP would be just as weirded-out if the employee went immediately back to joking around, acting like nothing happened, after getting negative feedback, and might worry that the employee didn’t take it seriously enough.

    Silent treatment is passive-agressive, it just sounds to me (because I’m totally the same way!) that the employee is embarrassed, and is processing and mulling over the feedback so that they can ‘do better next time’. I think OP is being a little too nit-picky about how they want employees to respond and overreacting to the response they’re getting.

    1. Argh!*

      We don’t really have enough information about this behavior so applying your own history could be totally off-base. Someone being “quiet” is very different from the “silent treatment” and people wouldn’t write in about mere quietness.

      1. Rana*

        You might be surprised. If your own responses don’t include going quiet in that fashion, it’s entirely possible to perceive such a reaction as “abnormal” or upsetting. (And the other way around, of course.)

        We’d need specific examples of shunning behavior to know that the OP’s sense of “silent treatment” lines up with the abusive form of being deliberately silent “at” someone, versus being quiet in their presence, but not maliciously. We don’t have that here, at least not in the letter.

        1. Argh!*

          We determine what’s “abnormal” from what’s normal in the workplace, not based on our own reactions. The fact is, most people can take criticism without creating drama over it. If it truly is a sulking “silent treatment” it’s unusual because that’s just not normal in a workplace. If the OP is an extravert dealing with an introvert, that’s more to your point. We don’t know from the OP.

  23. Argh!*

    I had one like this who didn’t just go silent – he fumed silently and scowled at the world for an hour or two. Finally I caught a facial expression during a discussion and I asked him what was going on. He told me he thought I was being patronizing. Well, what can a person do when presented with half-arsed work? I can’t tell him how great he is. So I told him I was responding to his work product and if he didn’t like my response he should step it up. A few times since then I’ve reminded him that I had a choice of assuming one of 3 things: 1. He didn’t understand the instructions, or 2. He didn’t comprehend the importance of the task or 3. He as a lazy jerk. So I told him I preferred to assume 1 or 2. That pretty much ended the snits (but he still half-asses it a lot – he really just has very low standards for himself and expects praise for doing anything at all. He doesn’t understand the difference between himself and a superstar performer. He probably never will)

  24. brighidg*

    I don’t agree with this advice either. letter writer sounds needy and like they are projecting their own discomfort over doing their job onto the employee. The employee is responding to them when spoken to and doing their job without interfering others, that is all they need to do. OP needs to back off.

    1. aebhel*

      Yeah. If you don’t need to be friends with your employees, then stop acting like them failing to be sociable with you is a major work failing.

  25. SynapticFibrillation*

    When my manager doesn’t agree with/like/understand/has a bad day and needs to take it out on someone, he comes into my office, airs his complaint with a tone that drips with frustration, and an accusatory “you’re doing this to hurt me” context.
    When I try to explain why I did what I did, or what was going on, or ask a question, he exclaims loudly something like “You know! YOU KNOW!”
    I’m a seasoned professional with a reputation for being diplomatic, reasonable and approachable. I don’t do passive-aggressive, or aggressive, but I certainly don’t tolerate that crud from anyone.
    I finally gave up and give him the silent treatment as well, which includes three of four days of a flat, blank stare when ever he tries to engage me in chit chat about gaming or other stuff he brings up to try and appear to be social.

    If he’d apologize, that would be better.

    This may not apply to the OP’s situation but it is what it is.

    1. Argh!*

      Adults who are into gaming — I distrust this trend. It’s no surprise there’s a lack of social/emotional skills there.

      1. Heatherbrarian*

        Wow. I and most of my friends play a variety of games and we’re perfectly fine socially. I in fact work in a customer service job and get regular positive feedback on my interpersonal skills. There are many board and card games out there that are pitched to minds more sophisticated than children’s – not to mention games like bridge, which we also play regularly, and which has been around for a very long time – and the fact that someone enjoys exercising their mind or passing their free time in this way says nothing about their social skills.

  26. Johnny*

    Very common issue, and you know what? If the silent treatment is bothering a manager, it’s a function of an inexperienced manager reacting to not being liked. As the old adage goes, “that’s why I make a dollar more an hour than you.” Suck it up. People have emotions, just as do you, and your job is to objectively, politely, respectfully provide specific examples with constructive…that’s right…constructive solutions with clear, measurable next steps. And you know what? If someone is sensitive and withdraws temporarily, too bad so sad. You don’t get to control how people feel, and you certainly have absolutely no right…in the human space…to dictate to someone how he should feel. An experienced manager learns, hopefully quickly, that picking your battles goes a long way in interpersonal communication. As long as he does his job and reverts back to a workable baseline mood and can work with others to reach goals, back off. Now, if he can’t come around or do his job, that’s a different story.

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