my employee shuts down when I give her feedback

A reader writes:

I manage “Mandy” and have needed to give her feedback a few times on the same topic. Think something like, “When you present a proposal, you need to avoid vague explanations of the client problem your proposal addresses and include detailed, quantified specifics of its impacts on the client.” I usually then go into an explanation of why it’s important to do this. But I think I get too long-winded, because Mandy always gets very quiet and just says “OK,” without asking questions, almost as if she’s being lectured. And I … get frustrated. I’d like her to engage with this feedback, not just shut down.

How can I stop getting so frustrated that feedback like “avoid vagueness” is nuanced and might take a few rounds to sink in? I’m new to managing mid-career staff like Mandy and I think I’m used to the more straightforward, unambiguous feedback I’d give to junior staff. What strategies can I use, scripts, even mantras to mentally repeat, to help cut myself off before launching into a long-winded explanation that might read as lecturing?

If you weren’t finding yourself having to address the same topic multiple times, I’d suggest that maybe the feedback itself is fine, but the explanation of why it’s important is unnecessary because Mandy already gets it as soon as you flag the issue — and so the explanation could be making her feel lectured or condescended to. If that were the case, I’d suggest skipping the explanation and just giving the feedback itself. Maybe end with, “Let me know if you want to talk any more about it or if you want me to say more about the rationale for that.” And then see what happens. If Mandy was able to take the feedback and run with it, that might be all the problem was.

However, this is different because the feedback isn’t sticking. Given that, are there other ways to coach her that aren’t “I sit across from you and talk about what needs to be different”? For example, maybe she’s someone who learns better if you can give her models or templates to look at — examples of what the work should look like, with a quick rundown of the differences.

You can also more explicitly engage her in these feedback conversations when you see her checking out. For example, give her the initial feedback with a brief explanation, not a long one, and then say, “If you were doing it over with that in mind, how would that change your approach?” or “Can we talk through what that would mean on X?” Or even, “Can you tell me what you’re taking away from this so we can ensure we’re on the same page?”

More broadly, you can also ask directly, “How do you prefer to get feedback? I’ve noticed you don’t engage a lot in the moment when we’re debriefing a piece of work, which is fine, but I also notice that the feedback isn’t always getting incorporated in your work later. Is there a way of talking through those changes that would work better for you?”

If she can’t answer that, my bet is that she’s uncomfortable with feedback in general and it could help to talk about how feedback works on your team — for example, that she should expect to get it on most projects, it’s not a sign that she’s failed, it’s a sign that you’re invested in helping her do well, and that for it to work you need her to listen and engage and right now it seems like she’s checking out. You might even look for ways for her to be around when someone else is getting feedback (someone who takes it well and has the kind of back-and-forth engagement you want) so she can see what that looks like in practice because she might have no idea. Obviously don’t just have her sit in on someone else’s check-in, but you might be able to orchestrate a way for it to happen naturally, like if she and the other person both worked on different parts of the same project.

If none of that works and she’s not engaging with feedback and not applying it to future projects, then you have a bigger problem. But try the strategies above and see what happens.

I realize the question you asked was “how can I be less frustrated that this isn’t sinking in?” but I think that’s the wrong question. “What’s not working and why?” is a better one.

{ 195 comments… read them below }

  1. Hills to Die on*

    I have a boss I shut down on when she gives feedback. Sometimes it’s fine but sometimes she berates people and I just say ‘okay’ or whatever I have to in order stop the nastiness. Then we are both frustrated. This is when she asks me questions except that there is no answer that will satisfy her. There is nothing anyone could say in that moment to calm her down, and it’s a known pattern of hers with many people over the years. It isn’t a matter of ‘if’, but a matter of ‘when’ it will be your turn.
    You just have to ride it out. When you don’t feel safe having a dialogue, all you can do is wait for it to end.
    OP, it doesn’t sound like that’s what you are doing, so I love the advice Alison gave about asking her how she would like feedback. I wish my boss would ask me that.

    1. TheBunny*

      I have one of these too. She berates and then gets mad when people don’t engage. um… you’re being awful, why would I extend the conversation???

    2. Letter Writer*

      I dearly hope this isn’t what I’m doing! But when I feel the frustration set in, I start to worry that I’m doing this. Are there particular behaviors your boss does that feel particularly like berating?

      1. Email (Optional)*

        LW, my experience has been that the people who are most concerned about being inadvertently harsh are quite often the ones tying themselves into knots to avoid any whisper of nastiness. Of course, your intent doesn’t necessarily translate to how Mandy’s internalizing all of this, but the fact that you sound so horrified about unintentionally making Mandy feel like she’s being berated makes me think that she might have some deeper issues going on that she’s not verbalized to you yet (imposter syndrome, sensitivity to criticism, feeling like she’s letting her colleagues down, beating herself up over any mistake she makes, reliving a previously tyrannical supervisor’s reign of terror, etc.).

        Best of luck to you both! I’m rooting for you.

        1. Letter Writer*

          Thank you – that’s kind of you to say. Unfortunately, I do think I’ve let my frustration show a couple of times, rather than erring on the side of being too gentle. I have never shouted at Mandy or made the feedback personal, but I think a couple of times I have gotten emphatic in a way that could read as angry. Think William Shatner style very. short. sentences. to get. the point. across. When I catch myself doing it I immediately wind it back but it would be better to fix my process so I never do it in the first place.

          1. Tio*

            Maybe you can focus in those meetings on that frustration point, and use that point as a time to stop yourself from talking and break it in with “Any questions so far? Thoughts, feedback, etc.” Just to give yourself a second or two to breathe and regain control.

            It might also help, if you are seeing the same things, next time you have an issue you’ve seen before come to the meeting with a scenario for you two to work through together. Like “This paragraph is too long. What information would you take out here?” Or if it’s some kind of input error, “What ways do you use to check for errors/missed steps?” Have her correct it with you to see if she understands, and that might be enough feedback to figure out where a problem lies.

            If she is really just a complete closed book, no suggestions or unable to complete the changes you want, then that’s… information. Might need to reconsider her completely and what the next steps are.

      2. Hills to Die on*

        ~ She has her voice slightly raised
        ~ People use the words ‘bite’ or ‘bitten’ when experiencing it
        ~ If you were writing it out, you would definitely use exclamation marks
        ~ Speaks faster and makes points at you rapid fire.
        ~ It’s the difference between talking with someone and emotional (but still professional somehow) venting
        ~ She looks at you like you’re the stupidest person to ever ask a question. Stops what she’s doing, leave her body still and turns her head with a look of surprise and somewhat disguised disgust. Answers the question with ice in her voice and a ‘duh’ tone and then turns back to her computer.

        I do not get the impression this is what you are doing, even if you are frustrated. Frustrated tones happen sometimes no matter how much you try but that’s entirely different.

      3. TheBunny*

        LW my boss gets really nasty. For example she was berating me and I just kept saying “ok I understand” as I was trying not to engage. She didn’t like that I was not really responding and said “it’s clear you know there’s a problem with your work you are agreeing with everything I say”.

        Um. No. It’s that you’ve decided what I did was wrong and you don’t actually want to know why I did it, etc. because you’ve decided it wasn’t how you would have done it so it’s wrong.

    3. Sloanicota*

      I wondered that about the “frustrated” piece of the question. OP, I wonder if your emotional response comes from the expectations you have for these conversations being thwarted – were you secretly hoping she’ll cheerfully accept or even seem grateful? Perhaps putting aside your expectations and reminding yourself a good outcome here is the changes you need ultimately getting made is the way to go?

      1. Letter Writer*

        Haha, not at all! I think if anything she’s being TOO accepting and grateful! I’d rather get lots of questions and have more of a back-and-forth dialogue. But I think something in my tone is making her think that I am looking for acceptance rather than engagement.

        1. Velawciraptor*

          Hey LW. So, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re hoping for her response to feedback to somewhat mirror what we’re seeing from you here in the comments section? Engagement, asking follow up questions, etc.

          Do y’all ever have meetings where she’s giving you feedback (or she’s present when other team members are giving you feedback) on how you’ve done something? Not in a supervisory capacity, obviously, but, for example, debriefs after a project where y’all go over what everyone, including you, has done. Something like that. I’m wondering if there’s a way for you to demonstrate for her how you’re hoping for her to engage with feedback in how you take feedback from others, and then point back to that example when you talk about how things might better work when you’re providing feedback.

        2. Nobby Nobbs*

          If she’s being too accepting and grateful, it’s possible she’s internalized the idea that trying to discuss feedback is “defensiveness,” “making excuses,” or talking back.”

        3. coffee*

          I’ve done some coaching training, and one of the things that surprised me with that was how much earlier I should stop talking and get the other person to step in and steer the conversation. I think that would really help here – if there’s nothing you’re giving to accept, then her response will more naturally to shift to engaging.

          You might also find that the area she struggles with isn’t the one you expect – like, does she hate feeling like she’s criticising someone when she gives examples so she’s vague? Or does she not know how to condense the data into a digestible format? Or is it more general dislike of public speaking? By getting her input much earlier in the conversation, it becomes a lot more relevant and engaging for her.

          1. WAIT!*

            Oh my god, this. My boss is a sweet and lovely person but he Will. Not. Stop. Talking. I don’t process things well by listening (podcasts, how even???) so I’m screaming inside after a minute or two.

            There was a NYTimes piece recently with a professional hostage negotiator about how to negotiate for low stakes things and this was one of his key pieces of advice. The article noted he had a stress ball with WAIT on it= Why Am I Talking. If you want your employee to engage…let her?

        4. TheBunny*

          I get this LW, I do.

          But this isn’t how some people process feedback. You can absolutely coach the performance or the presentation but you really can’t say how you would like the person to process feedback. That’s not how it works.

          In your case as it’s not working, this might change a little but my boss does this. She berates me and then tells me she wants more of a dialogue around the feedback she just gave. And…honestly? More than anything I feel like she’s looking for me to validate her giving me feedback which is the last thing I’m going to do after being bullied.

          1. aebhel*

            Yeah, this. For one thing, a lot of people have had bad responses from managers in the past when it comes to back and forth about feedback; it’s often interpreted as defensiveness or backtalk. And also, sometimes people just need to take a minute to process what they’re being told before they can come up with any questions about it. I don’t think focusing on ‘I want more dialogue in the moment’ is the way to go; the problem is that the feedback is not being incorporated into her work. Focus on that.

    4. Jbs*

      yep.. I have a boss like this.

      I am the SME and she doesn’t understand my area. At all. I will explain things to her until I’m blue in the face… put guides and one pagers together to no avail.

      I simply cannot win. Running on circles for a woman who will never be satisfied. First time in my life I’ve had to deal with this from a boss… and I’m over 40 now!

      at some point you decide if it’s worth your time and energy.

  2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    Thanks for this clarification between calling out the issue and lecturing.

    One of my leaders does that. Any time someone makes a mistake he comes across as lecturing, because he doesn’t have a sense of what is a one-off mistake and what needs to be addressed more broadly.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “Any time someone makes a mistake he comes across as lecturing, because he doesn’t have a sense of what is a one-off mistake and what needs to be addressed more broadly.”

      Ugh, this. It doesn’t sound like OP is doing this, so that’s good. I hate being asked to “improve the process” so that a mistake doesn’t happen again, when it was just a flukey one-off mistake. I had a boss who did this, there was no such thing as a mistake that you just let go. It was always a big process audit, like, mistakes sometimes happen, let it go, lady!

      1. Portia*

        Yes. I’ve had that co-worker — every one-off human error meant the whole process needed to be reformed. Everybody’s goal is to do things perfectly, but we are human and now and then things get past us.

        When the dramatic question “How can we make sure nothing like this happens again?!” is asked, sometimes the answer is, “We can’t.”

        1. Justin D*

          my whole department is like this. “here’s a 12 step process to fix the errors in the 6 step process which no one really understood in the first place”

          1. Letter Writer*

            Oof. You skewered me. I am ABSOLUTELY the person who would write the 12 step process to fix the errors in the 6 step process.

        2. Wendy Darling*

          ‘When the dramatic question “How can we make sure nothing like this happens again?!” is asked, sometimes the answer is, “We can’t.”’

          Or sometimes “We won’t because I’ve told you before what we need for this to not happen and you wouldn’t implement any of it”.

          I spent my entire last week making and then fixing a huge mistake that was only possible because of years of accumulated bad choices and 18 months of refusing to implement any of my suggestions to improve the situation and I’m pretty annoyed about it when I’m not shame-spiraling about having to spend hours in meetings explaining why I made a giant mistake and how I won’t do it again.

        3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          When the dramatic question “How can we make sure nothing like this happens again?!” is asked, sometimes the answer is, “We can’t.”

          My answer in that situation is “we do nothing. Nothing attempted, no errors made.”

          It usually reorients the conversation back into a productive direction.

        4. Pine Tree*

          I get your point, but I also specifically now ask the question this way: How can we ensure that the likelihood of something like this happening again is near zero?

          Because otherwise I work with a few people who would deal with the one situation after another going sideways, but NEVER think to step back and look at other situations that could go off the rails and how we could avoid it. Just putting out fires repeatedly without looking for the source of the fire.

          1. JustaTech*

            Oh yes to this.
            Like, not every error needs an engineering solution (and sometimes that engineering solution creates opportunities for a whole new suite of errors), but the solution also can’t be “tell the operator to pay more attention”.
            Like, nope, that’s not a solution.
            Better training? Sure. More frequent training, sure. How about more rest breaks? Explaining *why* something is done this way and not that way?

            There’s a reason why one standard investigation method is the “5 Whys” – because just asking “why” once doesn’t get to the root of the problem at all (but it also needs to be applied to an event and not a person, because then it’s just badgering).

        5. Heck in a Handbasket*

          I am that co-worker EXCEPT I do it to myself. Every time I make a mistake I add a step to my process or add a new process to prevent or catch that type of mistake in the future. I’ve added so much to how I get things done that I am overwhelmed and everything I do takes a lot longer. I tend not to repeat the same category of mistakes but the resulting burnout may be causing more errors in the long run.

      2. AngryOctopus*

        I had a boss who spent an hour meeting trying to figure out where my experiment went wrong, looking at all the individual data points, and just generally acting like I had no idea how to do my job. It was awful because 1-sometimes in science things just don’t work the way you think they will and the answer is “I don’t know we have to repeat it” and 2-when I went to repeat it and realized I had used the wrong plates for the cells, I had zero desire to tell him the actual problem, because I wasn’t willing to listen to another round of being berated for a mistake. People make mistakes! It happens! If things are messed up the second time around, you can start looking more closely at the various scenarios, but sometimes things just happen and you have to do it again.

        1. Erika Otter*

          Ok I have been in a version of this situation as a boss. (also had lab projects that failed so – sympathy!) Anyway – it sounds like a mistake was indeed made and the boss was looking for it, which seems reasonable? If the boss’ questions/process had turned up that you used the wrong plates, would that have been a good outcome?

        2. jobbyjob*

          Depending on your experience level though, and speaking about this because this is my technical area, the difference between a strong performer and a weak one would be 1) how often are mistakes like this getting made that result in having to repeat an experiment and 2) did you already think about this mistake as a possibility when troubleshooting and bring it up to boss or what is a total surprise? In science, it makes sense for your boss to expect you to be able to identify the potential root causes of something not working and also to expect that the error rate of things like using the wrong plates should be low.

    2. Stoney Lonesome*

      Yeah, I liked that clarification as well.

      Sometimes something isn’t right because you made a dumb mistake, or were rushing, or just didn’t put in enough effort for a million different reasons. People don’t make mistakes solely because they don’t understand that the thing they are doing is wrong. If I was vague when I should have been more detailed because I was in a rush because I had a million other things on my plate and my boss spent ten minutes explaining to me why being vague is bad, I would also just say “Ok.” (I’m not saying that is what happened in this scenario, just something that could be plausible based on the limited information we have.)

      My job deals a lot with behavior change. Changing people’s behavior is hard. Almost never does more information change someone’s behavior. We all want to think that if they other person just knew what we know they would act differently, but humans just don’t work that way.

      1. JustaTech*

        ” Almost never does more information change someone’s behavior. ”

        It doesn’t? Crap. That’s the method I’d been using in my training sessions – this is the method we use, you can not deviate from this method – this is *why* the method is this way, and here are the regulations that say you can’t change things on the fly.

        Thought I guess I’m not asking them to change their behavior, I’m just asking them to stick to the method and that the method is that way for a reason (and the reason is not to be tedious).

    3. Beeeboop*

      There is a lack of distinction between these things at my job, and it’s very frustrating.

      The latest iteration is that someone made an error that caused a safety incident, and now the whole staff has to receive training to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Normally fine, but in this situation the error should never have happened, because it involved someone doing something they shouldn’t have done with their personal equipment while at work. As an analogy, imagine someone decided to change the oil in their car in the parking lot of our office, then spilled the oil everywhere and had to call in higher ups to help with the clean up. The whole office now has to go through training on how to properly change oil and dispose of the used oil in accordance with state regulations… but we are not an automotive facility, and no one would ever have occasion to work on any vehicles in any capacity as part of their work duties. It will definitely never happen again, but somehow required training was the best solution management came up with.

  3. Hospital PT*

    I had a director who was in the habit of talking “at” us and in circles, which would result in most of us sitting stone faced until he ran out of breath. Having experienced that, what stuck out to me is that OP says they are giving potentially long winded explanations of “why” it is important to be detailed, but not necessarily giving actionable examples of “what” detailed looks like in comparison.

    1. ferrina*

      This stood out to me as well. What about:

      1. Open ended debrief.
      “Mandy, how do you think that went? What went well? What could have gone better?” See if she recognizes the problem.

      2. Only one sentence on the Why.
      “I thought that the project plan was fabulous- the clients really liked that. But the objectives were too vague. It’s important to be specific so we can set the scope with the clients from the get-go.”

      3. Give an example on the How.
      “For example, I saw the client as having three objectives: 1- Quantify how frequently the groomers give the llama haircuts, 2- Learn what grooming products are used for the llama, and 3- Understand groomer sentiment toward llama hair dyes.”
      or ask Mandy to do she could have described in more detail.

        1. Letter Writer*

          Ah but that said I don’t love the first question because I think it’s fishing for a specific answer. Whenever my manager asks ME how I think something went, I immediately assume they are looking for me to enumerate everything I did wrong. Even if that’s not the intent.

          1. Tio*

            I think you can break it up into two sections, like ferrina did – what went well? (Wait for a couple examples) That’s right/ ok. What could we have done better? (wait for examples/finding the problem). That may make it feel less like “waiting for a confession” so to speak.

          2. ferrina*

            Tone matters a lot on the first question. And rapport- coming from certain people it sounds like a conversation, and from other people it can sound like a quiz.
            Sometimes you can soften it by adding your (positive) impression- “wow, you got a lot of information in there! How do you feel it went?” or if you are debriefing after a tough client meeting: “That was a tough one! The client was certainly in a mood. How do you feel it went?” The first sentence is something that should position it as “you and me vs the problem” rather than “you vs me and the problem”

            Another way to phrase the question- “how are you feeling after that?”

            Or like Tio said, break up the sections. Letter Writer, I think you said that you do practice runs. You can tell them when first giving feedback- “first let’s talk about overall impressions, then dive into what you did well, then finally talk about possible improvements.” Just make sure that you give the same amount of time to what they did well- I’ve noticed that when I’m genuinely excited about something that my team did well, they are proud of themselves and more receptive to hearing and trying ideas for improvement.

          3. fhqwhgads*

            That’s interesting. Do you think it’s because of other behavior from your specific manager? Or is it more of a baked-into-your-thinking thing?
            Because with my last…I want to say three managers? If they asked me how I thought something went, I know it’s a sincere question. They genuinely want to know what I thought and do not necessarily assume I agree (or disagree) with them.

            That said, if the only reason it’s being asked is to see if someone can spot their own problem, I agree don’t ask it. It’ll feel like a gotcha because it kinda is.

            But I don’t think that’s inherent to asking someone how they thought something went. So that (as a totally separate thing from what you wrote in about) may be worth reflecting on.

          4. Also-ADHD*

            If you do consistent debriefing (with both sections—good stuff & improvements) even when things go excellently and make it more of a habit, it will not feel that way. It will only feel that way if you do it as a guise to bring up issues, but if you’re doing a normal coaching cycle and 1:1 etc., it will feel collaborative.

          5. Honoria Lucasta*

            I wonder if you could get more explicit about what you’re looking for? Like: “Ok, the meeting is over! what do you think went well? …. (answer + discussion ) … what are the biggest areas for improvement next time? (answer+discussion)”

            1. Honoria Lucasta*

              I missed that someone else already suggested breaking it up. Sorry for the repetition! You could also start with “Scale of 1-10, how do you think it went?” very casually, not giving the sense of a formal evaluation but just a way into the discussion.

        2. Shelby*

          I do too. The other thing it does is change the you statements (“you did this/you didn’t do this”) to I statements ( “I observed/l think”) which is then offering your perspective rather than assuming that’s the truth.

      1. Inkognyto*

        as someone who ended up in my career with people coming to me for learning on the job I ended up being a decent mentor/coach.

        It’s about learning, mistakes are just a learning opportunity, the impact is sometimes awful.

        but for me, I walk individuals through processes if they are stuck and don’t see why something is bad. Sometimes you walk it back from the end results. The key is here I have the person needing to learn the lesson (if they need it). Do the walk through on their process. The active engagement on the steps, what went wrong and where. I usually know, but not telling them and they have that ‘light bulb’ moment sometimes is all that is needed. Sometimes it’s a tool that produces a different result than they thought or they guessed with not enough information etc.

        I love coaching and I wish I could do it more in my role, but I’m solo on a larger team providing expertise on how to keep things secure. Many of the people I engage now do it because they have too and they honestly could care less on the why. I fight politics mostly now of “but this will take more time”. Yes, but at least the patient data is protected, and you still get paid if it takes you 1 hr more.

    2. pally*

      My now retired boss was a former professor. I think he missed doing that.
      A lot.

      So yep, had to endure a whole lot of ‘lectures’ that lacked concrete instruction or details as to what he wanted. The result was usually me returning to him later with two documents to show him and solicit his thoughts (“which one do you want, A or B?”). That, remarkably, helped him to clarify things for me. He could see how his words were being comprehended.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I actually think a lot of bosses are a lot better at articulating the “why” something is important than they are about explaining what they actually want. Well, I guess it’s 50/50 but there are definitely some people that lean one way or another. When you get something, you may feel the changes needed are intuitive and obvious, but sometimes from the outside the employee can’t figure out what exactly they need to do differently.

    3. Juicebox Hero*

      I get something similar from my manager. For example, when her administrative assistant is off, I take the deposits to the bank. Last time, I didn’t know I was supposed to give her the deposits for the XYZ account first so she can record them. This resulted in some very minor and easily resolved confusion, I apologized, and promised to give them to her first from then on.

      She nagged me about those everloving XYZ deposits all week and I think that every time she saw me she reminded me to give them to her first to prevent further confusion and agita. I deliberately waited until the assistant came back before I made another XYZ deposit. OK, I usually only have one a week anyway, but there was a definite element of spite to it…

    4. kiki*

      Yeah, I also think LW is unintentionally boxing Mandy out of responding to LW with her own point of view. Maybe Mandy disagrees with LW, but it’s really hard to disagree with your boss after they’ve expounded on their point of view for fifteen minutes.

    5. 2 Cents*

      I work 1,000x better off a template or example, especially if it’s PowerPoint (my nemesis). I may understand why it’s important to give solid reasons, but have embarrassing (to me) reasons why I can’t do that: too many variables in the data, not enough time to analyze, not enough data, not enough authority to make a final call on something, changing directives on what the report is supposed to show, etc.

  4. Falling Diphthong*

    I like the advice to ask directly if there’s a way to give her feedback that she’s found helpful in the past. Preferably in a separate one-on-one meeting where she’s not “in trouble” for anything right now, so it’s lower stress and abstract.

    I think the most likely outcome is that she’s uncomfortable with feedback in general. But! You ask because maybe that first easy explanation isn’t it. Maybe she would prefer an email because she tends to take in information by reading more than talking, or because having the written reference to check back over helps. Maybe she would do better if you started big picture with the why, and then tied it to how you want her to use these principles in this specific work project.

    1. Be Gneiss*

      That written reference thing is a great point! If I am getting specific feedback on how I should do something differently, I am sometimes so busy processing the fact that I am having feelings about it that I have trouble catching all the details of exactly how I need to change things. I LOVE having a written reference to refer to.
      In a perfect world I guess I’d be taking notes and then doing a follow-up email, but sometimes I’m a human person with feelings at work, and having the person who KNOWS all the things I need to do differently send me an email about it would really help!

    2. Ruby Soho*

      This is an excellent approach! I do much better with written things, exactly because I can go back to it as needed. And if I understand The Why, and where I need to end up, I guarantee you I will be so much more productive. I need to see the whole picture.

    3. PotsPansTeapots*

      Yes, this! I’m at a new job now and getting a lot of feedback and instruction. I appreciate when I have a document, even if it’s just a short email, that I can refer to. In conversations with my manager, my brain tends to focus on the whys and big-picture hows. Having something written down helps me incorporate the feedback once I get down to the nitty-gritty.

    4. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Whenever I hire or inherit a team member, during our ‘get to know each other’ sessions, I ask how they prefer to get feedback. I tell them I don’t go on fault-finding expeditions, but if I need to address something with them I will. And I’ll do it the way that works best for them.

      It’s amazing what you can learn if you just ask the right question and listen to the answer. Some people prefer an email, others a quick meeting. Some want the message delivered softly, others want straight talk. Can’t recall a time when someone wanted long, circular discussions on what went wrong, why it was wrong, how the mistake impacted me or the team, and a thorough dissection of the error.

    5. Shirley Keeldar*

      Another advantage to email–it might give her a bit of time to process a negative reaction (“oh no, I did something wrong, I feel awful right now”) in private, and then come into a meeting with OP ready to discuss how to implement the feedback. Mandy’s response (shutting down, very little talking) feels to me like someone trying hard not to show negative emotions or (horrors!) cry.

      Not saying you’re a boss who routinely makes people cry, OP! Some of us just struggle in this way and email can help.

    6. allathian*

      Yes, this.

      If you want me to actually apply any feedback I get, I need it in writing. And I need you to provide it to me in writing, because if I take notes, I’ll risk missing half of your points. When I was in college and had to take notes, I basically had to read my scrappy notes and rewrite them to make any sense of the lecture.

      My dad had the same problem, and he asked his aunt, who was an EA in a company that’s pretty high profile here even today, to teach him shorthand so that he could take verbatim notes. Then he’d rewrite them in longhand and omit all the unnecessary extra text. That really helped him learn the material because he had to understand it so he could select the pertinent information and discard the rest.

      1. allathian*

        If I’m ever required to work for a manager who’s a verbal processor (unlikely because I’m written comms adjacent), I’m going to have to ask their permission to record any feedback they give to have any hope of actually implementing it.

  5. Jen the Iffer*

    Have you tried sending her written feedback in advance of meeting about it and specifically asking for her to come to your meeting with some ideas for improvement? That time for processing the feedback before having a conversation may make it more of a coaching opportunity than feeling like a lecture.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I like this idea, thank you!

      I do sometimes send feedback in writing; she’ll make the changes, and then in our next check-in meeting she’ll just tell me she did so while rattling off other updates, like “I met with Jim, I made your edits to the proposal, and I scheduled a call with our client at XYZ Company.” I do think if I explicitly ask her to bring ideas and be prepared to discuss them we could have a richer discussion.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        It sorta sounds like she may think the intended nature of the process is you give her corrections, she does them, then carries on with her day. Whereas what you want to happen is she takes the corrections she’s already received in the past and extrapolates, and thus needs less correction the future. Are you sure there isn’t a disconnect there? Alternately, she may be well aware but has no intention of changing unless there’s some consequence. I don’t mean to sound punitive but there is the possibility she’s just choosing not to do it. Or potentially isn’t capable of doing it without you handing her the edits.

    2. Sloanicota*

      This is what I thought. The second time this happens, you need to create a process step where she reviews the client problem with you before she presents this. You two refine it together and hopefully the next time she brings you her version it’ll be closer to what you want (and if not, that’s a bigger problem).

  6. TheBunny*

    Personally, and maybe this is just my take on it, I don’t really think you can set a way in which people respond to feedback. Some engage with dialogue, others think about it and make the changes, some are hurt or frustrated…there are tons of ways…and you can’t dictate to people how they take it in.

    In this case, the feedback isn’t sticking so at that point you can dictate the conversation and how you feel it should go.

    1. Erika Otter*

      It’s interesting that you say this. I think a lot of management advice expects that feedback should involve active engagement of the person receiving feedback – like if that’s not happening, the manager isn’t doing it right. I appreciate this realism!

  7. Hell in a Handbasket*

    OP, since these are ongoing issues — next time can you review her proposal BEFORE she presents it? Then if it has issues, you can tell her (briefly) what they are and ask her to fix them herself. Repeat until she’s gotten it right (or until she can’t/won’t, in which case you know you have a bigger problem). It seems like that would help her grasp what needs to be done better than expecting her to remember your feedback for the next presentation.

    1. ferrina*


      If you know where the common errors are, focus on that part of the process. Review the proposal. Have her give a practice proposal where you give feedback.
      And tell her what she’s doing well, too. Often when managers are trying to fix something that’s all they see, and that gets disheartening. So if you see her doing something well, tell her that!

    2. Letter Writer*

      Ah, I think this is a side effect of trying to keep identifying details out of my letter. In this case, this IS the pre-review stage.

      1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        Does she know that the feedback is general, and not only about THIS presentation? Granted she should if you’ve said it repeatedly, but sometimes you have to make that part explicit.

  8. Betty Spaghetti*

    Agreed on giving her examples of what you’re looking for. If telling her isn’t working, SHOW her.

    1. MsM*

      Especially if – and I realize OP was just using this as an example, but still – the feedback is something like “give specific examples.” If I’m Mandy, I probably don’t need to know why that’s important so much as why what I’ve been saying isn’t specific enough, or where I’m supposed to go for that data.

      1. Quill*

        Giving specific examples can be a place where experience makes things obvious, and lack of experience makes it a vague instruction.

        For example: “Proposal Y will make us faster on shipping teapots because we will eliminate the 15 minutes usually spent cross-referencing which patterns we have in stock over three different manufacturers” may seem obvious when you are the one doing the cross-referencing, but if you’ve never done it and the reason you wrote up Proposal Y to be able to import your catalogue into your warehouse tracking system boils down to “my boss told me to,” you don’t have anything to add to that section.

        1. Zelda*

          Ironically, “avoid vagueness” is incredibly vague! Possibly the LW was omitting details for anonymity, but Mandy may just need a lot more concrete and specific information about *how* to do what she’s been asked.

          I had an English professor in college who couldn’t articulate what he didn’t like about my papers. I kept getting feedback that amounted to “it didn’t sound right,” and increasingly frustrated directives to “make it sound right, darnit!” Still a little bitter about the hit to my GPA because he was entirely failing to teach me anything.

          1. gmg22*

            Vague feedback is my direct manager’s specialty — “could you just make it … better?” with the more recent added twist of “could you just do it … more like such-and-such other team does it?” (when that team is operating in a very different part of the world and political/legal context). It has absolutely been a factor in burnout for me in my job. Feedback is an art, and actionable details are an important part of that art.

          2. Which Susan are you?*

            I had a horrible poli sci professor who did the same thing – review after review of my term paper draft with no specific examples, and then a bad grade at the end. I loathed the guy.

  9. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    For example, maybe she’s someone who learns better if you can give her models or templates to look at — examples of what the work should look like, with a quick rundown of the differences.

    I think that’s a great point. If you can point specifically to a slide and her explanation, and say “that’s what I think is vague, and it would be better if you said X, Y, Z.”

    Also, has Mandy seen you present?

  10. mcm*

    It might also help to be intentional about telling her what IS going well in the same conversation about what’s not going well. If you’re just saying what was bad about the presentation, it can be easy for an employee to take away, “that went horribly!” which, if that’s not actually how you think it went, is not what you want. It’s also a less productive takeaway than, “My slides were good, but I need to now focus on getting more specific the next time I give a presentation like this,” which is specific and actionable. Not saying you aren’t being clear enough, but I think if you don’t name what’s going well AND what’s going poorly, the specificity can be lost in someone just hearing, “you’re bad at this.”

  11. Msspel*

    I would also suggest reflecting on how you respond if/when Mandy engages with your feedback. This is totally me projecting and may not apply in this case, but I am like Mandy – I often receive feedback from my boss with just an “okay.” I have learned that if I do try to discuss her feedback, she hears it as me arguing with her and then she explains to me why my opinion is wrong, actually, and I should do what I’m told. I don’t actually want to argue, so the best option I can think of is to agree with her and try to move on.

    1. fidget spinner*

      Yeah and even if the LW doesn’t see responding to feedback as arguing, there are a LOT of managers who do. She may be coming from a manager where anything other than “okay” is seen as insubordination and even asking clarifying questions is seen as arguing.

      But yeah, it’s a good point to ask what response the LW is looking for… If I’m having a discussion with my boss about feedback… I’m probably going to explain why I made the error and indicate that I understand that he wants me to do it differently. Or if I don’t understand what he wants me to do (although I can’t think of a time when that happened), I’d ask questions.

      But is it really necessary to engage with his feedback if I’m just gonna be like “oh sorry, I thought we were doing x because y. I’ll do that from now on.” Which isn’t going to add much to the discussion.

      I guess the problem in the OP is that the person is making the same error over and over… so she obviously isn’t understanding something or is unwilling to do it differently?

      1. No name*

        She may be coming from a manager where anything other than “okay” is seen as insubordination and even asking clarifying questions is seen as arguing.


        Also, managing mid-career workers like Mandy vs managing junior staff can be quite a different kettle of fish.

    2. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      Do you keep doing the mistakes/things your manager tells you to stop though?

      If Mandy doesn’t understand the feedback or disagrees with it she should say so. Just ignoring her manager and repeating the same mistakes is not a sensible strategy to retain her job

    3. Penguin*

      Absolutely, I also have had managers where they expected me to accept feedback and there was no room for discussion. For fear of not seeming insubordinate all many can do in that position is just say “okay” and try to move on.

  12. Pink Candyfloss*

    Speaking as a Mandy, I need concrete examples showing me how you want this done, rather than a verbal explanation of what needs to happen.

    1. ferrina*

      Or even have the boss shadow you on a project. Does Mandy know where she can find examples? Is she skipping steps of the process (or does she even know that those steps should be done)?
      It doesn’t need to be the full project, but sometimes a quick walkthrough of “take me through your process” can help both of them identify where the weak spots are.

    2. Allonge*

      That’a perfectly reasonable, but – you ask for that, right? Not just sit there and think about it.

      1. No name*

        Plenty of bad bosses will refuse to even consider providing feedback in a different way, or will see such a request as insubordination or disrespect.

        Managers hold all the power in these situations and they need to set their teams up for success if, including by asking questions like the methods that staff find most helpful when receiving feedback (in writing, verbally, both, etc)

  13. Caramel & Cheddar*

    “I’d like her to engage with this feedback”

    What does that actually mean to you, though? Like, are you trying to get her to agree that she messed up on a task? Do you want her to, unprompted, suggest alternate solutions that might avoid the problems in the future? Something else? Would care about engagement if your feedback was leading to change after only mentioning it once?

    I’ve often been a Sarah in the past, where I’ll take the feedback and then go back to my work. I’m unlikely to want to have an extended conversation about that feedback in the meeting because I haven’t had time to give it much thought, don’t like being put on the spot, and engagement can often be mistaken for defiance or refusing to take responsibility. None of that is fun for the person receiving the feedback.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      I took it to mean ask questions, talk about why she doesn’t agree it’s relevant, etc. since it’s not sticking in her future work. It sounds like OP is equally frustrated with herself in these meetings and thinks she should be more patient.

      Would like to hear more specifics around what you are asking as well as an update if she uses Alison’s suggestions

    2. Festively Dressed Earl*

      That got me too. What does “engage with feedback” even mean? Acknowledge that the speaker has a point? Refrain from making the same mistake?

      1. ferrina*

        Yes, OP needs to tell Mandy what they want. And OP should also invite Mandy to engage by asking questions and waiting for the response. Turn this into a conversation.

        OP, this will also help you find out what you need to do to help Mandy. Is it a case where she doesn’t understand the why? Or she understands but doesn’t care? Or she understands but doesn’t know how to assess her own work in that regard? Or she understands but doesn’t have the training/tools to do better yet?
        What would happen if you just said, “Hey Mandy, I know we’ve had this conversation before, but the objectives in the proposal were too vague. What are your thoughts?” Then listen. Build on the conversation, “Did you think they were too vague, or did you think that they were okay?”

        And OP, the more you make it about the process and less about Mandy, the easier it will be for her to come to you easier in the process. You and Mandy are a team working toward the same goal. Turn it into a dialogue.

    3. only defensive when unduly attacked*

      Strong agree on your whole comment. If you’re just telling her what’s wrong without asking her questions to respond to or giving her any sense of how you want her to respond, then she’s not going to know how to respond.

      I had a job at an infamously toxic company for several years where most of the “feedback” I received was irrelevant, disproportionate, or often verifiably untrue. If I tried to engage (get more details about what they were talking about to try and place it, go more into depth so I could understand why it was suddenly such a big deal, or explain my perspective/correct what actually happened) they got mad at me and then I got more feedback that I was defensive or didn’t take feedback well. If I tried to engage by modeling ideal cheerful, grateful, agreeable feedback-taking behavior, then I was still criticized for not taking it seriously enough or not caring that I was so incompetent. There was no way to respond that didn’t make everything worse, so eventually I learned to respond as little as possible.

      Not that OP is doing this, but it’s worth it to keep in mind that they might be coming across this way – there isn’t really a good way to respond to even the truest, most gently delivered long-winded lecture. Or it’s entirely possible that Mandy has had previous managers (or parents) who were like this and shutting down is a protective response that she hasn’t yet found the safety to unlearn.

      1. NotJane*

        Your last paragraph is such a good point! I’ve had so many bad managers in the past that when I started at my current job, it was a huge adjustment. It took quite a while for me to believe that my bosses actually wanted me to respond to their feedback and even push back if I thought they were being unfair or they didn’t have enough information. That protective response is hard to unlearn!

      2. No name*

        This is a fantastic comment. I can relate to it completely, unfortunately, and completely agree.

        It would be helpful to understand the relevance of LW’s feedback to Mandy’s primary job responsibilities. Are both LW and Mandy specialists in the tasks discussed, or is it just one of them? If LW is offering guidance on an area that is Mandy’s specialty, despite not being well-versed in it themselves, this could indicate a significant issue. Or is the feedback only relevant to a task that forms a small part of Mandy’s role?

    4. Letter Writer*

      Great question. I think it would be a combination of things. Brainstorming and suggesting ideas for what she could include in the future. Asking me for help, for examples, or for clarification.

    5. Dust Bunny*

      I read this as Mandy clarifying what she doesn’t understand (since the mistakes keep happening); asking for another feedback format (I am not an auditory person myself; I would do better with written feedback. But my boss wouldn’t know that if I didn’t tell them); asking for examples; pretty much anything that would help the OP help Mandy.

  14. fidget spinner*

    She might need to be told explicitly that you want her to engage with your feedback and ask questions. There are a LOT of managers out there who take any questions or really anything except “okay” as “arguing” and being “subordinate.”

    (ask how I know, lol… or don’t because I don’t want to relive that!)

    1. Not what was said*

      “insubordinate” but your point stands.

      I also have a long memory, my Emperor says whatever they “feel” at the moment using language that would have me labeled as insubordinate among other adjectives. I am scrupulously polite but my personal opinions I don’t share.

    2. RLC*

      Agree so much! Had one terrifying manager who threatened disciplinary action against any staff who responded to feedback with anything more than a nod of their head. Even an “okay” would earn us an angry lecture about not following rule (no speaking). If an employee has bad prior experience with feedback, their reaction to any feedback could be very, very minimal. (I was about 15 years into career when I experienced this bizarrely controlling manager, took me years to respond appropriately to feedback.)

    3. Smaug*

      Yeah, I have had managers who reacted very negatively to me speaking to them in any way when I was getting negative feedback. One snapped at me that when she corrected me “you say ‘yes ma’am’ and that’s IT!” The fact that I was agreeing with her and/or apologizing did not matter, it was backtalk to her.

  15. KTM*

    I don’t know if Mandy is early career, but I struggled a lot with feedback when I first started my career. I was an A student and generally excelled in school so it was a bit of a shocker when I started getting corrections on my work/behavior/etc. All of it was totally legitimate feedback from my boss but I’m sure I responded similarly and then ruminated on it for weeks.

    I was recommended a book called ‘Thanks for the Feedback’ by my mentor and it really changed my mentality about receiving feedback. I think it took someone coaching me specifically about receiving feedback for it to go well (i.e. shifting my mentality to “I can’t improve and progress in my career if no one gives me feedback”). It might be worth her getting that kind of coaching rather than working on how you are delivering feedback to her.

  16. AlsoADHD*

    One question I have is how collaborative feedback works in your org/team in general. Feedback like writing a proposal I would think to not just be general 1:1 coaching/manager feedback cycles but also to be a culture of continuous/ongoing. Do you have peer review of proposals or presentations? Do you ever review materials before the presentation is made? Does the employee flag places with questions/thoughtful revisions? (I work in a role that has some presentation, some design, some documentation, and all of that kind of stuff goes through review processes, though some are very informal.)

    For more 1:1 coaching, I would say the key is to use a combination of a structured process and collaboration there too. What does the employee need to improve? Want to improve? (Sprinkled in with specific praise to their accomplishments and top skills as well, as observed over time, and asking their needs/barriers.) For something like a presentation that already happened, I see a little bit of a wasted opportunity. The ideal would be to review it together/plan before the next time if it’s a real area that needs improvement, or to have some kind of review process (not where the manager looks at every presentation, but there are peer reviews, checklists, samples, templates, etc. and looking at ONE presentation next time isn’t out of line for a manager, assuming it’s done in a positive way).

    I definitely wouldn’t launch into the “why” if it’s possible Mandy knows why. I also would show, rather than tell, with an example like this. “I would have liked to see a slide on XYZ to illustrate ABC” etc. You should know why, in case Mandy asks clarifying questions, and you should also welcome her questions later (some people won’t have them in the moment, especially if they’re dealing with imposter syndrome, RSD, stress, or just process that way).

    I don’t actually think “avoid vagueness” is nuanced so much as it’s…vague. It requires an example, of where more information was needed, and what kind of information would make sense. It also sounds like you’re not asking Mandy many questions (though you may, this is a short letter) so I would encourage some questioning and a collaborative process, including some actual review of the materials you want improved.

    1. Olive*

      Totally agree. One person’s vague is another person’s high level. One person’s detail is another person’s neverending tedium. Who doesn’t love looking at rows of numbers on a slide deck? The example seems to me like the kind of thing that doesn’t always have an inherent right way and wrong way. If certain shareholders need certain information, that should be what’s made clear.

    2. B*

      Thank you for pointing out how vague “don’t be vague” is!

      There may be some element here of “smile and nod,” because if I were mid-career and being managed by someone not used to managing work at my level, and I got general, non-actionable feedback coupled with a lecture about how important it is … I would smile and nod until I was excused.

    3. Awkwardness*

      It also sounds like you’re not asking Mandy many questions (though you may, this is a short letter) so I would encourage some questioning

      This stood out to me, too.
      I might shut down if boss gives me negative feedback about a thing I was trying to clarify several times beforehand but which did not occur as too relevant to him and thus was not addressed.
      So ask why she kept the presentation the way she did! Maybe she thought it was fine, maybe she was lacking information, maybe there is a story to it.

    4. Letter Writer*

      “It requires an example, of where more information was needed, and what kind of information would make sense. ”

      This is what I’m trying to do in my long-winded explanation. But I don’t think I’m succeeding. I agree with you that I need to pause more and ask her questions.

      1. Also-ADHD*

        You mention talking about why in your long winded part. I do sometimes ask why questions, but it is worth noting that why usually has nothing to do with how/what. It sounds like Mandy isn’t asking why, but if you’re piling on a bunch of why before what and potentially how (an example) is established, you’re being very confusing. You say what, how (example), why usually when coaching, if including all three.

  17. Olive*

    While I firmly believe that the LW is well intentioned and not doing anything wrong, I would hate the way she gives feedback. I feel stressed just reading that she gives a long-winded explanation of why something is important. And the example she gave doesn’t sound straightforward and unambiguous to me.

    I would respond much better to being given a concrete example of what a successful presentation looks like and how mine could have been changed to have those characteristics.

    That’s not to let Mandy off the hook – if she’s mid-career, she should be able to take in feedback that isn’t in her preferred style and should be responsible for her own follow-up questions if she’s not sure what to do. (Although people can be afraid that follow-up questions will make them look stupid or incompetent). But if the goal is for the thing to be done right rather than to assign blame, trying some new strategies seems in order.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I appreciate this! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

      “And the example she gave doesn’t sound straightforward and unambiguous to me.”

      Ah, sounds like I didn’t phrase my letter clearly. I was trying to say that ‘straightforward and unambiguous’ feedback is the stuff I DON’T struggle with. Where I find it harder to coach is when feedback IS more open-ended and will usually take some back-and-forth brainstorming.

      1. Saturday*

        FWIW, I understood that from your letter :).
        I’m also guessing the long explanations are probably happening because you’re not getting much response from Mandy? Like if she jumped in and said, “Yeah, I see what you mean – if we had included X information, the client could have had a better picture of Y,” then you would know the message was received.

        I like the idea of directly asking some questions that might give you an idea of whether she’s getting it or not (like the advice to say, “can we talk through what that would mean on this project…).

        1. Letter Writer*

          I’m glad to hear it came across!

          And thank you. This is exactly it. I’m definitely going to try and think of some questions that would prompt responses like yours.

      2. kt*

        The thing that’s catching me up/confusing me is that this is phrased as a question about giving feedback to a subordinate, but when you explain it, it sounds like you want a partner, not a subordinate. How can I say this… it sounds like you want a leader who is able to co-generate ideas, take what you’re getting at and riff on it, bring something original to the table, etc.

        That’s a very different dynamic than, “I’m your boss and here’s the red pen on what you did wrong,” which is what I get from the headline. And when I get red-pen feedback, I too take it mostly silently, go “fix” it, and then come back to say, “I checked that box, what’s next?” Red-pen feedback isn’t collaborative to most folks.

        On the other hand, I’ve had a boss or two who’s come to me and said, “Here’s what I’m looking to accomplish. You know your team, you know the technology; how would you do it?” Ah, ok, I understand the brief: I come up with an idea, he comes up with an idea (I’m thinking of a specific boss), we compare them next to each other, we pick out aspects of each that are good, realize that actually we could condense & simplify this, and then we have a plan. This boss had very clear messaging about being entrepreneurial and being willing to be challenged. (He visibly respected & invited challenge on ideas and implementation in settings that he also explicitly outlined, and at the same time set the expectation that after that challenge & refinement process, it was time to line up and execute once the decision was made.)

        What are the chances that Mandy thinks she’s efficiently executing on your red-pen feedback?

        1. Letter Writer*

          Oh my gosh, you nailed it. This is such a clear and succinct explanation of the transition I’m making from managing junior to senior staff, and why I’m struggling with it so much. This project is Mandy’s, and I definitely want her to take ownership of it rather than just executing. I bet I DO need to be more explicit about that. Your former boss’s messaging is great. I love how he propped you up as an expert and set a warm tone.

          1. londonedit*

            I bet this is why she’s struggling, too. The project’s meant to be hers, she’s doing the work, and then she sits down with her boss and gets (in her eyes) a lecture about everything that’s wrong with it. So all of a sudden the project isn’t hers, it’s just a list of errors that she needs to fix. I can see why she might shut down at that point and wonder whether you actually want her to own the work, or whether she’s just meant to do what you tell her. I think you definitely need to be more explicit about the fact that it’s her project, and you want any feedback to spark a discussion and a collaboration between the two of you, rather than her seeing it as ‘LW has scribbled her red pen all over this’.

  18. Ruby Soho*

    I also kind of shut down when getting feedback, not because I’m disengaged or annoyed, though. I’m overly sensitive to feedback – which is a me problem, and I keep it that way for the most part, but I’m always a bit uncomfortable.
    The other, bigger, more important reason I may seem disengaged is that I’m taking in what your saying. I’ll take time to digest it and then figure out what to do with the feedback.

    1. Justin D*

      yeah I’m usually thinking about why I did it that way and which of the 14 resource docs I need to reference to make it the way my boss decided she wanted it this time (as opposed to also time)

    2. M2RB*

      Same – I definitely have some rejection sensitive dysphoria, which is a real pain in the rear, so occasionally I’m listening to feedback AND telling my emotions/reactions to STFU, and I don’t have the mental capacity to come up with coherent responses in that moment. If I can take a few minutes away to absorb the feedback, process through the emotions **on my own privately**, and then come back with questions or ideas or brainstorming, things are usually much more successful and productive.

      I don’t know if that’s the case for LW’s employee but when I’m already trying to keep my RSD in control, having a manager/supervisor continue to beat a dead horse makes it even worse. Let me go process the feedback and then come back with answers.

  19. theletter*

    I’m wondering if something is being framed as critical feedback, when the example given sounds more like improvement suggestions for a deliverable. Maybe if the process changed from ‘here’s a list of things that went wrong and why it was bad’ to ‘I have some ideas as to how to improve the pitch and I’d like to discuss and incorporate,’ it’d feel more natural.

  20. Bird Lady*

    Maybe Mandy was told that asking a lot of questions or explaining her line of thinking was problematic, so she just says “okay”. Early on in my career, I was told that asking questions, and saying “So when I saw this issue, I thought this, where did I go wrong” was confrontational and inappropriate. So I did what was required to keep my job – say okay and then try to perform according to the feedback even if I didn’t understand it.

    It wasn’t until later on in my career that someone asked me what I thought of the feedback and refused to accept my diplomatic response. I’m really grateful to have worked with that person! She helped me learn to express my questions or even my disagreement about feedback in ways that are mature and respectful. (For example, a board member complained about the sound my shoes made on the title. I was allowed to dismiss this as nonsense.)

    1. Ruby Soho*

      This reminds me of how my father told me not to ask for feedback because I might seem needy, insecure, in need of constant praise, etc. Not the best advice he ever gave me lol

    2. kiki*

      Yes, I’ve also been told that responding to feedback with an explanation, questions, or concerns comes across as defensive. And I understand now that it definitely can come across that way in some situations, but as you move up in a hierarchy, the expectations changes from “Take my feedback and do it” to “What do you think? Is there something I’m not understanding about your approach?”

  21. hypoglycemic rage*

    as someone who also does not love getting a bunch of feedback – especially negative, but i understand that feedback in general needs to happen! – maybe try incorporating some positive things too, so it’s not a “reasons why you suck” kind of thing.

  22. Rainy*

    Agreeing with everyone who said that you should try telling her how instead of why. “Give specifics about impact” is pretty direct; the only explanation needed for why is “the client needs to see the specific value that this will have for them”. But if you aren’t saying “Here are some guidelines for being specific about impact,” you’re not actually giving *actionable* feedback, you’re just explaining like she’s 5 that the client needs to see the specific value. And while the ELI5 technique can be fun when you’re learning about something new, it’s not fun coming from a supervisor when you don’t also get a checklist or a rubric for how to actually do it.

  23. Lily Rowan*

    I took a training that said (among other things) that for more senior level or higher-achieving people, it’s better to coach them via asking questions vs. telling them things. So in addition to asking how she wants to get feedback, you could also ask how she would go about getting more detailed information for the next presentation like this. Or even get her to explain what she thinks clients are looking for, which might help you clarify your expectations. Definitely make it more of a back-and-forth.

  24. Mmm.*

    I wonder if the feedback isn’t as clear as the LW thinks it is. Starting with “here’s what you need to do” rather than “here’s what you need to stop doing” can really clarify things. Bringing in concrete examples also helps. I mean, “Be less vague” IS inherently vague! And when you say “bring examples of XYZ,” show her where that didn’t happen and help her reframe it.

    You also don’t know what questions to ask if you truly think you understand what’s being asked of you–or if the feedback is so vague (or angry) that you don’t feel comfortable asking.

    Feedback is useless without collaboration. Think back to being in school and getting an F on a test without any actual training on what you did wrong–you just keep doing it wrong because you don’t know what right looks like. If you did, you would have gotten it right the first time. You HAVE to be willing to get your hands dirty if you want that A+ work from someone.

  25. Bob*

    Oh, I get to cross the streams and recommend someone from education!

    You might want to try three point communication, described here by OliCav – it decenters the person and focusses on the work output.

    You might also like to read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most from The Harvard Negotiation project to think about how you might structure the overall conversation.

    1. HonorBox*

      Difficult Conversations was a great resource for my wife when she was navigating some crap at work, and I’ll throw in a second to that recommendation on her behalf!

  26. EmilyClimbs*

    OP, it sounds like one of the things you are looking for advice on is how to stop yourself from being so long-winded… you don’t mean to, but struggle to stop yourself, is that right? If so, is that the way you are with everyone, or is it something that tends to happen more with Mandy specifically (for example, might it be that her tendency to be terse in these conversations causes you to feel like you need to “fill the silence” by talking a lot)? Either way, might it help to write out some brief notes before a feedback conversation on how you want it to go, and then refer to those to remind yourself to move on to whatever your planned next step is, rather than detour into an unnecessary and long-winded explanation?

    1. Letter Writer*

      It is. And I am neurodivergent. So monologuing is something I have to be on guard for. I agree that scripts can help take off some of the mental burden of monitoring myself.

      I suspect what I actually need is to script a pause for questions. Because I’d like to have the explanation handy if Mandy finds it helpful. But not assume she wants it.

      1. EmilyClimbs*

        Yes that makes sense! Or if “pause for questions” turns out to be too difficult for you to execute without filling the silence with an explanation, you could script in some specific language around ways to ask or probe for whether she needs more explanation or clarification, so the ball’s then clearly in her court and you wait to respond until you understand what she needs?

        1. Teez*

          Definitely script in a pause! I am in an office full of folks who are compelled to fill the silence, and they often take my pause to get my thoughts together as a sign they need to keep talking, so we both end up frustrated that I don’t contribute. Planning ahead to deliberately pause can help override that instinct.

          (With one coworker, her urge to provide all possible detail is so strong that when she gives me info, it’s like asking for a needle so she helpfully provides a haystack to keep it in.)

  27. CatsOnAKeyboard*

    If the feedback is actually being given as written: “This part needs to be less vague and more specific to the client” followed by the reasons why it is the case, rather than examples as to what that actually means – what she needs to do different – I feel like it’s no wonder she shuts down! That doesn’t sound like there’s anything actionable for her to do. And I say that as someone who loves to explain the reasons behind the reasons.

    I think if you want more engagement, you need to skip the lecture on why it’s important, and immediately go into it ‘for example here, can we talk about how you could make this more specific’ – solicit her input/provide your own examples – provide an opportunity to interact, not a lecture. Maybe end it with a ‘if you want to explore about some of the deeper reasons why we do it this way, I’m open to your questions and ideas’.

  28. NotARealManager*

    You said you say things like “you need to avoid vague explanations” and then go into an explanation of why it’s important so she probably does feel like she’s getting lectured. I’d change your approach by saying what you want to see instead of what she should avoid. And then the “why” of it all can be very brief. If she’s mid-career, she probably already knows the why. What she’s struggling with is the how. Provide an example and highlight the details people like to see in a proposal.

    And feedback is really difficult for some people, even if it’s instructional or neutral. Saying “okay” and nodding are probably her ways of trying to absorb what you’re saying without getting defensive or emotional in the moment.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      If it’s always the same issue (too vague / not enough specifics) I’d imagine this could be solved with a few coaching sessions where OP and Mandy sit together and go through an actual document until it’s at the standard it needs to be.

      For example if the proposal is for adding a new inspection step to a manufacturing process that will add cost but is intended to improve quality.

      Mandy: we propose to introduce this, so that quality will be better.

      OP: how will it improve quality? (Find defects earlier) – what’s the benefit of that? (the earlier it’s found, the earlier it’s fixed) – why do we want to fix it earlier? (because that way we avoid rework) – why do we want to avoid rework? (because it is more expensive) – how much more? (it takes 10x as long for someone to fix it manually compared to the fully automated process).

      Then work through rewriting the paragraph accordingly.

    2. aebhel*

      Yeah, that stood out to me. If my manager goes out of their way to talk to me about something, I’m already assuming it’s important. If they were to then go on at length about how important it is or why it’s important, I would feel condescended to.

  29. Reality.Bites*

    I can’t help it, but I immediately imagined giving her feedback to the tune of Manilow’s Mandy. Probably not helpful.

  30. CAS*

    I definitely shut down sometimes when my supervisor gives feedback. One, she has a tendency to come barreling into my office in the exact moment she has read or reviewed something and pops off with what comes across as random feedback. I often have no context for what she’s talking about and am confused by what she’s saying. It’s a very ineffective way of giving feedback. She receives a blank look and, “I’m sorry, what project are we talking about” when she does this.

    Two, she seems to want to engage sometimes in a discussion about the direction I took on a project, but she is rarely interested in listening and will talk over me, insisting on knowing whether I understand her. When she does that, I shift quickly to “okay” mode, which ticks her off because I’m not engaging. I once had to ask her for a break during a meeting when this pattern became very intense in the moment. Do you want to tell me what to do, or do you want to hear what I think about what I’m doing? I am not interested in making a defense, and it’s pointless in a power differential with a superior who doesn’t want to hear another perspective.

    Three, she will repeat the same feedback, explanation, or information over and over no matter how many times the other person says they understand what she’s saying. She does this in nearly any discussion with virtually anyone, and I think it’s a form of defensiveness. I also have shifted to “okay,” “yes,” “understood,” etc. when she does this. More recently, I started interjecting with, “Yes, I understand that you want X,” after about the third repetition. It’s exhausting.

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      Yes but it sounds like you understand what she wants – from her first time explaining ! – and you do this in future.
      The problem is that Mandy either doesn’t understand or just ignores what the OP says, because she keeps repeating this mistake.

      1. CAS*

        My point is more about the shutting down aspect. I think it’s important for supervisors to have self-awareness about their feedback styles and to recognize that their approaches may not get the outcomes they want.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Thanks for this! I suspect my problem is I’m doing thing #3 from your comment – repeating myself over and over even if the other person doesn’t need it.

      #1 and #2 sound really awful and difficult to deal with – my sympathies. I don’t think I’m doing either of those things but this is nonetheless a helpful reminder.

    3. middle management 2.0*

      I’m going to a completely different reason. I shut down because my boss didn’t understand the audience, or how my team worked and would repeat herself over and over about needing more and more details when the client or team wanted big picture. Some clients need lots of details, some don’t. I would think someone mid career should know the difference. My boss also wrote 5 and 6 paragraph emails of basic rambling. She was really insecure in her position and her way of communicating and her controlling the situation was to keep talking and talking. So I nod my head and keep going because I constantly have project people and team members complain about the ramblings… middle management is fun!

  31. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    She may not understand what you mean by “less vague”
    I suggest you take her most recent presentation as an example and list some items you wanted her to specify as actual figures or names,
    e.g. to produce 10,000 blue llama harnesses per week would have initial tooling costs of $45,000 and then $26,000 weekly.

    Then ask her if she understands and feels ready to proceed this way in the future.
    If she says yes, then ask her to update that presentation or another example fully with specifics. Also ask whether she would like you to be there to help or if she prefers to do this on her own.

    If she still doesn’t answer, but just sits there like a pudding …. you have problems

    1. Letter Writer*

      Interesting! This helped clarify what I think the problem is. I think what I usually do is I give an example like yours…then I give another example…and then I give a third example. And I bet that’s exactly where she is checking out.

      Feels like maybe I could do something like this: “For example: to produce 10,000 blue llama harnesses per week would have initial tooling costs of $45,000 and then $26,000 weekly.” and then STOP myself, and say something like “Did you find any data points like that in your prep that you think would fit well here?”

      1. Happily Retired*

        Consider having her re-do a recent presentation, just for training purposes. Let her talk about each slide (assuming it’s PPT, etc.), and why she chose the material on it and did not add different material. And obviously, don’t forget to give genuine positive feedback, and why it’s good, on the slides that hit what you think is important!

        Perhaps having something concrete to review and evaluate will work better for her.

        1. Billy Preston*

          I like this. I would also struggle with “less vague” and going through something together and talking about it would help so much.

      2. londonedit*

        My mum does this, and I absolutely do end up checking out and responding with ‘Yep’ and ‘Yep, OK! Got it!!’ But she can’t stop until she’s explained the same thing at least three times in slightly different ways. Because it’s my mum, I can say ‘OK, Mum! Got it! Don’t need another explanation!’ but I’m not sure most people would feel comfortable doing that with their boss.

        1. Billy Preston*

          haha my mom does that too, not letting me say whether I got it before she starts on rephrasing #2 or #3. Like you said, I can say something to her but with a boss, that’s harder.

      3. Teez*

        I have a coworker (not my boss but senior to me) who does this, and we often get stuck in this pattern:
        Her: You did it wrong, [explanation of why, example]
        Me: I understand, and I apologize. So next time-
        Her: It was wrong. [More examples and reasons why it’s important]
        Me: Yes, I said that I understood, so-
        Her: It was wrong! [Even more examples and explanations of things she already said]
        Me, thinking: Okay, you don’t want to work on this, you just want to get all your feelings out. I’m checking out.

        The extra examples and repeated explanations of the same thing over and over, especially in a frustrated tone, often come across as “I am berating you for this mistake multiple times even after you have apologized” which REALLY turns off openness to collaborate.

        Luckily, you seek constructive feedback instead of (as my jerk coworker does) getting loudly upset when anyone pushes back even slightly, so I think you’ll do fine. :)

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      1000% this. Don’t say what to avoid; instead say what must be included.

      “Vague” is in itself a vague word. Instead of saying “don’t be vague” it’s generally better to say “be sure to include these items” and then list them.

  32. Immortal for a limited time*

    Sounds like this LW needs to focus more on “what” and less on “why.” Maybe the employee can’t visualize the kind of detail or metrics you want, so show her examples. Offer to help if you haven’t already. Maybe she shuts down because she isn’t sure how to find or verbalize or encapsulate the detail you want because nobody has taught her, or she isn’t detail-oriented or verbally facile enough to succeed in the role.

  33. HonorBox*

    OP, I just told a coworker the other day that in order to get an answer from our boss, the question/comment/concern may need to be phrased differently to get an actionable outcome. I’ve also had a conversation with same coworker related to asking the right person the right question the right way. All of that to say, I think if you tried to reframe your feedback, you may get better results and engagement. Clearly Mandy is shutting down AND not implementing the feedback. So control what you’re able to control. Use the advice above to reframe how you’re providing the feedback. Perhaps it is providing a model for what specific things should be implemented in a proposal versus just saying “less vague.” Perhaps it is sending feedback in writing with some things she can read, reflect on, and then implement. The important part of giving feedback is giving it in a way that a person picks up on. If you can start to reframe and ask Mandy if she’s picking up what you’re putting down, that will be a good start. If she’s not able to actually implement that, you have a different problem and a (potentially) easier solution.

  34. Pizza Rat*

    Some people are more likely to retain knowledge when they understand the why behind something. However, this is obviously not how Mandy processes and stores information and LW shouldn’t be trying to force her to. People’s learning styles aren’t one-size-fits-all.

    Getting long-winded is going to seem like lecturing and the shutting down may very well be Mandy wanting to GTFO. Or she had a previous boss that did not permit any kind of engagement with feedback. It’s on LW to do some due diligence here.

  35. Zilla*

    I LOVE Alison’s second paragraph.

    Maybe I misunderstood OP, but “Do A, not B. That’s important because X, Y, Z.” might not be specific or actionable enough for Mandy. Maybe the problem isn’t that Mandy underestimates or forgets the importance of A, but that she doesn’t fully understand what A means for you. OP, you say that you’re new to managing mid-career staff like Mandy, so are you new to managing Mandy? Does Mandy have enough resources to learn what exactly you consider a good A?

    Plus, there might be a simple communications mismatch. OP, you say you get frustrated when Mandy doesn’t engage. But Mandy might misread this as frustration that you have to explain something at length … again. And just tries to move things along, without asking the questions she needs to ask to get better.

  36. MuseumChick*

    There are so many things could be going on here! As someone who really struggled to take even slight negative feedback for a long time and would shut down, I can tell you why that was for me. It was because I grew up with a parent who was unpredictable in how they would address issues. Sometimes they were nice and calm, sometimes screaming. So, when conflict, no matter how mild happened in my personal life, I would shut down just like Mandy. It was a lizard-brain survival response.

    What helped me was having a boss who would sort of, give me an soft place to fall in these discussions. “I’ve notice that sometimes when giving a presentation on a client problem, the explanations your give can come off as vague. A lot of these problems are very clear to us since we are in the thick of it but for the X and Z department they need a lot of detail. For example you side (Blah), next time add in (insert details).” It became not about getting told I was doing something wrong, but about helping the X and Z department.

    VERY important is your tone. My bosses’ tone was always conversational, not like I was being lectured.

    I also agree with Alison’s advice to as her how she likes to get feedback and what you can do to make the whole feedback process easier for her.

    1. Cj*


      I did’t grow up with a parent like this, but I still struggled with getting negative feedback for a long time. explaining it the way your boss did would have been very helpful.

  37. Ess Ess*

    Instead of lecturing, ask questions. You say it isn’t detailed enough… then ask questions about the details you want to see so that Mandy can identify what she is missing. Mandy has already been told why it’s important… so now you need to work on her ability to identify the details to expand on. Ask why something isn’t in the report… and then stop and let Mandy explain her reasoning so that you can identify if Mandy isn’t identifying which items are as important as you think they are.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Very much this. If Mandy is to become successful in this role, she needs to learn how to identify those deficits in her work herself, and asking questions is a good way to encourage that.

      I have learned that good managers generally start by asking questions. “What do you think went well here?” and “What do you think was missing?” are two good places to start in a case like this.

  38. Oh, just me again. . ..*

    Maybe offer her a run-thru, with you as the audience before the next presentation, so you can hash out exactly where and what improvements are needed. This may feel like something you would normally offer to someone more “junior” but I offer. if your hitting the same issues over again, she probably doesn’t get exactly what you mean. Or, she has a tendency to underrepresented, at the the introduction part of the presentation (maybe rushing to get to the “meat” the solution she’s offering)

  39. learnedthehardway*

    Perhaps what you need to do is to provide the feedback and schedule another time for Mandy to address how she is going to put the feedback into action. She may not know how to respond in the moment. Setting an expectation with her that when she is given feedback, she needs to think about it, assess whether there are extenuating circumstances, and find strategies for how to incorporate the feedback to improve her performance in that area.

    Eg. perhaps she was late with a proposal because another team didn’t provide the inputs she needed. That might change your opinion about who is responsible for the late proposal. But she should also have a plan so that doesn’t happen again – eg. follow up with the other parties and get a commitment from them about when their work will be in to her, follow up with them to ensure they are on track, escalate the issue to you a ahead of the deadline if she isn’t getting a response, etc.

    Some people shut down when given criticism, but she probably just doesn’t know HOW to deal with it. It is a skill that people have to learn in a professional environment, and their own upbringing and past employment experiences CAN definitely affect how they handle criticism until / unless they are taught how to respond appropriately. Perhaps you’re not berating Mandy, but if a prior manager or a parent did, or if she is emotionally sensitive, she might really struggle with responding in the moment.

  40. Pretty as a Princess*

    If this is about being able to articulate things like impact and quantitative benefit, I am wondering if she is struggling with what that really looks like. This is a problem that is rampant across my organization. There are a lot of people who go to describing activities and outputs when they should be communicating about impact.
    – “We trained 600 people” – well ok that’s quantifiable, but how is the client *better off because we did that*? What does it mean in terms of *their business* that those 600 people are trained? What outcomes did the training enable?
    – Or “We hosted a hot fudge sundae workshop and the feedback was all very positive” – which is great, and having feedback from customers about the quality of our work is important! We collect that too – but it still doesn’t tell me how the client is better off as a result. Are they now able to open a new hot fudge sundae store that will bring in another $2M in revenue next quarter?
    – Or people are stuck in a loop where they are thinking about the benefit to *us*: “This led to a follow-on $1M project to build an oomptysquatch.” That is excellent for us, yay! And that is something we also track and monitor. But I have observed that even very, very smart people well in tune with what their clients need struggle to communicate about actual impact if they haven’t been really educated about how to do so.

    (I’m presenting this in terms of reporting after the fact because those examples are just easier to demonstrate common challenges I have seen with folks being asked to articulate impact.)

    So if it is this same thing over and over, perhaps try to reframe how you talk about about *impact* and what kind of quantifiable or observable results measure that impact. I like to ask “How, specifically, is/will the customer better off for having hired us to do X? What’s the proof?” That has been the most effective way for me to get people to think in terms of impact.

  41. Delta Delta*

    I wonder if OP gives Mandy a head’s up she’d like to meet about feedback on X or Y. It might help if she knows ahead of time what they’re going to discuss so that Mandy can be prepared to participate in the conversation. Some of her “okay” might be mentally catching up to where OP is, trying to remember her part of the project/presentation, trying to think of what she did right (or not), and by that point OP has moved on to something else.

    I’d also suggest asking Mandy open ended questions about what she thinks works or didn’t, which should invite her to talk more. If OP is doing all the talking, Mandy’s brain may turn off and she says “okay” repeatedly in a desperate attempt to keep with the conversation until she can get the heck out of there.

  42. Sharon*

    Does Mandy know how to do what you’re asking? Instead of just general, high level feedback and and explanation of why it’s important, she may need more training on how to exactly incorporate that feedback into her work. Maybe go over one of her draft proposals with her and point out the vague language and brainstorm how to add more specifics together.

  43. JPalmer*

    Allison has good advice here as always.

    I think the statement about the long winded lecturing is central to Mandy’s response. It’s possible that it’s just a brain dump of feedback because LW is experienced in this field and Mandy is newer. So it becomes hard for her to engage. LW could try being briefer, or providing the notes as paper/email or a doc with comments so Mandy can better interact with it.

    There might also be another reason that Mandy is shutting down. It’s possible LW is more toxic in nature than they are letting on and giving a biased accounting, or Mandy views LW as incompetent for some good reasons, or Mandy is job hunting and doesn’t care about improving at this job.

    Note how LW didn’t say other things they tried. They gave feedback, and that didn’t work and they haven’t tried anything else and they’re frustrated already.

  44. Lauren*

    Honestly, I have had a boss before where if I engaged in feedback, i.e they said “You did xyz good, but it would have been better if you did it like zyx” and I would say, “Ok, that seems reasonable, but I do not understand what about zyx makes it a better way that xyz, can you please explain?” I would be called “combative, argumentative, and adverse to feedback”, which by all means looking back was probably sexism as I am a young(ish) woman. Its very possible this woman experienced that before too – if I said anything other than “OK” when receiving feedback, I was reprimanded. I have now left that organization as they had more issues than one, but keep in mind this is a very possible thing!

    1. Penguin*

      +1 to this. My last manager called me combative, so replying with “okay” is my way of just politely getting through it in a way that I can’t be criticized for. Sometimes if the feedback is fair or actionable I feel more comfortable sharing how I can make changes. Sometimes I don’t have that clarity in the moment and I don’t want to dig a deeper hole.

  45. ZugTheMegasaurus*

    I find that coming at it like “that was good but it can be even better” gets good results (both receiving and giving). Not in a compliment sandwich kind of way, just not wasting time on talking about what’s bad (particularly when it’s over and done with and there’s nothing you can do about it).

    I think a lot of people shut down when they hear “you did something WRONG,” and a lot of the time, the thing wasn’t even “wrong” in the first place. In OP’s example, Mandy didn’t make some horrible material error or botch the entire proposal. She didn’t ignore the client background entirely; it just needed more detail. I would absolutely not take it well if my boss launched into a long lecture about something like that (and would definitely perceive it as condescending).

    I would approach this by sitting down with Mandy and looking at the proposal. Focus on the area that’s too vague and say, “This would be a lot more effective if we put in some real specifics. Can you think of any that you might have come across when making this proposal?” That gives her the opportunity to show that she knew the information (i.e., prove she’s not being vague because she’s BSing her way through the work) and explain why she’d decided against including it, and you can clarify the expectation for next time. If she really doesn’t understand or it’s clear she didn’t do research she was supposed to do, then that’s a good time to expand on what you’re looking for and perhaps provide some examples for her to look at and figure out what the expectation is.

  46. Jaded Teen mom*

    Mandy sounds like my teenage son. She sounds like she doesn’t give a s**t. I suspect no matter how much you bend over backwards to give her feedback just exactly “right,” the result will still be the same. “Ok, see ya!”

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Except that for a lot of teenagers, this is normal behaviour. But Mandy is not a teenager, she’s an employee.

      Even so, if people don’t give a shit–whether they’re a teenager or an employee–there is generally a reason for that. A good manager (and a good parent) tries to figure out what this is, and work through it or around it.

      Giving good feedback in a way that an employee can understand it and make good use of it doesn’t require a manager to “bend over backwards”. It’s just a part of good management.

    2. MuseumChick*

      This feels like a very unkind take on what is going on here. Figuring out how to most effectively communicate is the mark of a good manager (and I would argue a good parent!)

  47. teensyslews*

    I feel like there’s 2 issues here:
    – Mandy isn’t improving after receiving feedback. Depending on her role expectations, flexibility, and budget, maybe adding in some job/presentation shadowing or tag teaming, additional coaching/training from a peer or external coach that can deliver the feedback in ways you can’t
    – Mandy doesn’t respond in a collaborative way. It could be that she needs time to think (I know I sure do after receiving feedback) so maybe after the feedback, say you’d like her to come up with XYZ as a response and meet on it a day or two later. It could also be she’s never had a boss who wants feedback to be collaborative, so, she might need some leading “what do you think?” or “what will your next steps be?” questions to get her in the direction you want to see.

  48. Kitt E. Kaht*

    When you present feedback, you need to avoid vague explanations of the problem your feedback addresses and include detailed, quantified specifics.

    For example, instead of just saying “avoid vague explanations”, point out what explanations were vague and how they should be changed to show detailed, quantified specifics. Show what you are looking for instead of just why.

  49. Lucy Van Pelt*

    I have a pet peeve about the phrase “You need to…” It’s how people a generation younger than me speak to their children. You mention that she’s mid career, so it might be hitting her ears the same way. It in no way explains the whole situation. It probably has a lot more to do with how she takes feedback. But I’m wondering if there’s something about the age relationship between you that is making this more difficult.

  50. Garden Gnome*

    My direct supervisor gives feedback in a way I like. I was fairly new at creating a certain document and left out a piece of information that needed to be included. He said “this phrase needs to be in all these types of documents because it will get kicked back if it’s not in there.” Done. Okay now I understand. I’m not a fan of long-winded explanations or taking the scenic route to explain something (had a boss who used to do this). Please just go from A to B – think bullet points. To me, a long explanation feels condescending and, frankly, I will have probably forgotten what was said at the beginning. Maybe this approach might work for you.

  51. MuseumChick*

    This feels like a very unkind take on what is going on here. Figuring out how to most effectively communicate is the mark of a good manager (and I would argue a good parent!).

  52. Helen of Trails*

    “But I think I get too long-winded, because Mandy always gets very quiet and just says “OK,” without asking questions, almost as if she’s being lectured. And I … get frustrated. I’d like her to engage with this feedback, not just shut down.”

    Ok, OP. A couple of things here:

    – you two seem to have vastly different communication styles.
    – going into a long-winded explanation of WHY she needs to be “less vague” isn’t working. In fact, I’d bet that she IS feeling lectured and is probably wondering why you think she’s so stupid that you need to explain to her why you need less vagueness.
    – after lecturing her, you’re expecting her to get excited about the topic and engage and brainstorm with you? The woman is terrified and humiliated and feels like she’s screwed up yet again and she can’t please you. She’s not going to engage.
    – have you tried “hey, I’d like to see more detail around X” and leaving it at that?
    – also, is there anything she IS doing well? Can you give her some recognition there?
    – it may help to get vulnerable and start with “you know, I feel like we have a disconnect here, and I’m afraid it’s on me. I’ve been giving you feedback on this and telling you to change it, but I haven’t told you what I want it to look like.” And then give concrete examples.
    – try not explaining as much. Just give short examples and then stop and give her space to respond.
    – ASK her to engage, or give her opportunities to do so. Like literally, “I’d love to hear your ideas/brainstorm this with you. Are you ready to do that now or would you want to take some time to put your ideas on paper and then connect again this afternoon?”
    – please include positive reinforcement at every step here. What is she doing right? Make sure she hears this from you.

    1. Helen of Trails*

      I just realized that I made the positive reinforcement point twice. Well, it’s really that important – I’ll let it stand.

    2. the.kat*

      THIS. I don’t see any indication (and yes, I know it’s a short letter) of praise or recognition.

      Does Mandy do things well, and are you approaching her about those items? If not – if the only time you’re seeking face time about her projects is when you’re lecturing/correcting her, I bet she is pretty checked out. She might even be job hunting. I probably would be.

  53. Ms. Vader*

    Ugh I have a senior manager that goes on and on after I’ve already acknowledged his feedback. Like I’ve told you I understand- I don’t need another 10 MINUTE “discussion”. It’s demeaning.

  54. FuzzFrogs*

    I once supervised someone who couldn’t take in feedback if there was even a hint of sternness to it. The reactions varied from anger, to going around me to my boss, to fear, to avoidance to…well, it was the gamut. Regardless, if I was stern in any way, the behavior wouldn’t change. Either she would do it anyway behind my back, or she would just avoid me and try to get my boss to undermine me, or she would just keep doing it and insist we had never had a conversation about it before, if it came up again. (Example: I’m an explainer, like you. One time, I explained why she needed to use hand sanitizer, after blowing her nose into them, before working with customers. I explained germ theory, in a friendly way, I thought. She purposefully avoided me, for three months, because my explanation was interpreted as “FuzzFrogs thinks I’m gross.”)

    The long story short is that I had no authority to do anything about this person long-term, but I was fully expected to fix her mistakes. So I HAD to learn how to give her feedback in a way that stuck. In her case, I had to figure out how to make even the biggest mistakes sound like a friendly teaching moment. Did I want to do this? Absolutely not. But it was the ONLY thing that worked, even temporarily, and I had to make it work for myself, and for my branch to keep functioning.

    As much as she was an outlier, the important lesson was that everyone learns differently. If you have difficulties with an employee, document, document, document, but for your own sanity, try to figure out some form of feedback they respond to, and use it. Even if it’s not natural to you, just do it.

  55. Bear Expert*

    Talking to her about feedback and asking if she knows how she best takes it on board is a good idea.

    She may not know, so you may just have to try stuff.

    Templates and examples.
    Giving feedback in writing (slack/comment function in documents/postit notes)
    Giving feedback in smaller amounts.
    Making sure you’re giving feedback that can be clearly acted upon, and if possible have a way to self test. (It can be hard to look at a whole report and try to self edit for “be less vague”, but way easier to edit for “before you send the report to me, make sure that each section header has 2 or more metrics and references, and the report should declare what action you want the audience to take in the first paragraph as well as the ending paragraph.” or whatever.)
    Asking her to walk you through what she is doing and describe the process
    for repeated issues, ask her why she’s not making the change? (Can she not see the change you want made? Is it an attention to detail thing? Can she see that she’s being too vague but doesn’t know how to fix it? Is she always doing this report in a rush?)

  56. ADHDadult*

    I am one of those people who respond to criticism in a similar way – I get quiet and shut down, depending on the context and the situation. And I’ve since learned that this is due to undiagnosed ADHD. I don’t know if this is the case for the OP’s employee, but it reminds me of that. It’s rejection sensitivity disphoria (RSD) in my case.

    As I cannot tell what tone the OP was using, I can only figure that they are using a firm tone, and lecturing more than coaching or providing constructive feedback. There are different ways to approach providing feedback that works for those with RSD. Maybe that’d be worth looking into, OP?

  57. MAW*

    From the post: ““When you present a proposal, you need to avoid vague explanations of the client problem your proposal addresses and include detailed, quantified specifics of its impacts on the client.” I usually then go into an explanation of why it’s important to do this. ”

    What I don’t see in this feedback, is examples…Maybe it’s just that the manager didn’t specify that in their original post, but if this is, as written, what they are saying, I too would find it confusing and/or frustrating and/or condescending.

    If I were Mandy, I would already understand the “why it’s important” but not really know how to move forward, without something along the lines of “When the client asked X, your response was to say Y. A more effective response would have been to say Y and then elaborate with 1, 2, and 3. Or to say Z instead, and here is why Z is a more effective response.”

  58. No name*

    LW, provide Mandy with anonymised examples that have explanatory notes attached. As in, examples of what the work should look like that are fantastic, good, and acceptable, with annotated notes as to what parts of these examples are fantastic, good, and acceptable, with explanations as to why you rate those examples in the way you do.

    Then provide her some some anonymised examples that are a little short of adequate, as well as bad and really bad, with the same type of notes attached that also explain how the work could be improved.

    You also need to ask Mandy what the most effective way for her to receive feedback is. As managers, we need to take a compassionate, trauma-informed approach, and not get frustrated.

    1. No name*

      You also need to tell her what she’s doing well, and ask what you can do to set her up for success.

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