How To Handle Unexpected Emotional Responses When Giving Feedback

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In a previous article, we explored why so many managers avoid giving feedback. For many managers giving feedback becomes stressful and consequently, some individuals consciously choose to avoid giving feedback; not ideal especially when it can truly help an individual improve their performance.

One of the main reasons managers say they delay giving ‘constructive’, or developmental feedback, as we prefer to call it at Excel Communications, is because they don’t know how people might react.

In reality, there are some fairly consistent responses that people have when receiving developmental feedback and it might surprise you to learn some are even positive! 

In this week’s post, we will look at the most common responses to developmental feedback and how to handle them.  

What Are The Typical Responses To Developmental Feedback?



Here employees can deny they behaved in the way a manager describes, or even that an incident took place. They may acknowledge an event happened and yet down play their actions or the impact that they had.

At its most extreme, an employee may challenge the facts being presented to them which in turn can be perceived as questioning their mangers credibility.


Emotion is at our core and in a situation where they are questioned on their behaviour, an emotional response can be triggered.  

Emotion can range from tears through to shock, and even anger. Someone may respond verbally when angry saying things impulsively that they later regret.  

While others might shed a few tears (be prepared for this to happen with both genders), and are then able to quickly compose themselves. In a similar context to anger, you may have an occasion where a team member breaks down. This is indicative that something else is going on for the individual and your ‘feedback’ has triggered an outpouring. 

My own experience of this has been when there have been extenuating family circumstances or other stress factors outside of the workplace


This is where the person believes that the way they handled a situation or conversation was the only option they had and was a logical way of behaving. They can hold a firm and fixed belief that both their approach and behaviour were acceptable.


While we need to be aware of the above potential responses, it doesn’t always end in shouting and tears! 

It’s important to remember that on many occasions individuals will accept their manager’s feedback.  

In one study, 74% of employees who received developmental feedback already knew there was a problem. It may suggest that they don’t appreciate the impact their actions are having
or, aren’t sure what to do differently.

Desire to change and grow 

Now there are team members who are eager to have your feedback and readily accept your comments, suggestions, and direction. They implement at speed and see the results of
their changes quickly. This inspires them to ask for more feedback and the cycle continues. These individuals thrive on, and embrace change

What Makes Employees Respond In These Ways?

growth-and-fixed-mindset-excel-commStanford Professor Carol Dweck sheds some light on how people choose to respond to feedback and why some managers fear giving feedback.  

Professor Dweck describes two mindsets: One fixed and the second a growth mindset.   

Fixed mindset: According to her research, people with fixed mindsets view their skills as constant personal traits.

Growth mindset: Here people view their skills as malleable abilities which can be improved upon.

You may be able to recall those times in your management career when an employee has said something like, “well that’s just how I do it”, “I do it like that because it’s who I am”.

Professor Dweck goes on to say:

Fixed mindset: “People who hold these beliefs think that ‘they are the way they are’, but that doesn’t mean that they have less of a desire for a positive self-image than anyone else. So of course, they want to perform well and look smart.”

Growth Mindset: “People who hold the Growth Mindset believe that intelligence can be developed, that the brain is like a muscle that can be trained. This leads to the desire to improve.”

This begins to shed some light on why some team members are able to readily accept feedback and shift the focus quickly to what they need to do differently while some of their colleagues respond quite differently. 

By the way, if you haven’t read Professor Dweck’s book it’s well worth adding to your library. 

Let’s move on to looking at how to handle these varied responses from your employees.  

How To Handle Responses


The key to handling denial is to provide sufficient examples to support the feedback. Based on the initial examples you provide you will have a sense of the individuals level of resistance. Be prepared to share more if you need to.

As more examples are shared most employees will back down as they become aware of the impact of their behaviour and actions. Now is the time to ask them to reflect and explore options of what to do differently next time.

Depending on the individual and the behaviour you may decide to be directive and state your expectations of what they do differently or take a coaching approach. 

If the employee continues to deny, it makes sense to end the conversation and agree to meet again. This gives them time to go away and reflect.

When you do meet again if their opinion hasn’t changed make them aware of the consequences of not changing their behaviour.


How this is handled can depend on the type of emotion. In the first instance, whatever the response is, taking a break and leaving the room to allow an employee time to collect themselves is often a great place to start.

When you reconvene, it’s also good to acknowledge the fact that the employee is not satisfied with the feedback. Probe a little to explore what views and comments the person
has and listen.  

Restate your examples explaining your perspective. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask your team member to imagine that they were a third party looking at the situation you are discussing, ‘a fly on the wall’ as we might say. Then ask them what their view of the situation is as they look on. Often this third party’ perspective gives them new insight.

This then allows the conversation to move forward into a “what to do differently stage”. 


While justification may seem a challenging response to handle, it is quite easy. Every company has systems, processes, policies and procedures that employees are asked to use and follow. When team members decide to do things ‘their’ way, it’s time to remind them of the ‘company’s way’.

Think of all the documentation you have available; a company handbook; a job description ; performance management systems. Anything you have in black and white is a great resource that managers often under utilise.

Acceptance and Desire To Change And Grow

This is the easiest response to handle. Depending on the person’s knowledge and experience of the task or situation you are discussing, you may decide on a directive or coaching approach to the next steps in the person’s development.  

Whichever approach you choose, communicate your confidence in their ability to improve if they follow the action steps you agree. Be sure to follow-up regularly and recognise their progress and results.   

While giving feedback may seem to be a challenge for many managers, it’s important that they are a role model; always working on their own areas of improvement and embracing the changes they themselves need to make to improve as a manager.

We even have made this article into a helpful infographic!


Alex & The Excel Team






P.S. If you would like to discuss any of your learning & development challenges for 2022, call us on +44(0) 1628488 854. 

About Excel Communications     

Excel Communications is a learning and development consultancy based near London in the U.K. For more than 30 years; we have been collaborating with clients across the globe. Partnering with Excel empowers you to evolve your people and business by fuelling a love for learning. We work with you to create unforgettably, customised learning experiences to achieve your vision of success and growth, with tangible results. View our case studies here.  We have a team of expert trainers delivering programmes across five continents in multiple languages. Call us now on +44 (0) 1628 488 854.   


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