You head a department or run a business where everyone must pull their weight and then some. One employee does not. He reliably misses deadlines and produces poor quality work.
You've tried to give him feedback, but he always manages to avoid responsibility. He seems made of Teflon. Sometimes he tells long stories about how it wasn't his fault. Other times he blames you for singling him out. There was even one meeting where he started crying.
On the one hand, you're trying to reach challenging goals or break even in your business and can't afford someone who isn't fully performing. On the other hand, confrontation isn't fun, so you put off your meeting with him, thereby piling up even more feedback for when you eventually do meet.
This employee is smart and can be a real asset if you can figure out how to turn around his work habits. Start by understanding why your Teflon employee is deflecting your feedback. Then try a corresponding technique to provide that critical feedback.
1. Your Teflons don't care as much about the outcome as you do
They are more focused on other priorities or believe they'll be better rewarded by spending their time elsewhere. To defeat this mindset, connect your intent to something they do care about. For instance, if they care about working with an international client, point out that proofreading sloppy emails will help them improve their communication skills--which they will need to demonstrate before working across cultures.
2. They'd rather fess up than be told they messed up
Some people don't like being found out. In this case, after a key meeting or deliverable, ask them how they think they did: what worked well and what they could have done better. Sometimes your feedback won't be far from what they self-report, making your work a lot easier. Other times, your perceptions could be very different; if so, call that out first. Say something like "It's helpful for me to hear how things went from your perspective. I have a very different view that I'd also like to share."
3. They don't handle emotionally difficult conversations well in the moment
You know you have someone like this if they frequently cry or send you apologetic notes about their outbursts. To help them prepare to hear your criticism, tell them you have some difficult feedback and that you'd like to simply share the feedback and then end the meeting to give them space to process it. Follow up with another meeting in a couple of days.
4. They don't feel appreciated
Sometimes even your best employees might have some things they need to do better. However, when you point that out to them, they accuse you of being too tough on them, singling them out, or not appreciating them enough. In this case, consider how often you provide them with positive feedback. Research shows that in order for us to feel balanced, we need five positives for every negative. Make sure you aren't taking their strong performance for granted and are frequently seeking out opportunities to give them positive feedback.
5. They think your perception is different from the facts
Some employees will say the facts are different from what you see or that the way you've presented the data isn't fair. In that case, you can point out to them that their task might be simpler - perhaps they don't have to change their behavior, but simply change your perceptions. Regardless of whether your perceptions are accurate or not, be firm that the end result needs to look different.
6. They don't like how you provide feedback
Even though the feedback you want to provide your employee is about them, you might need to pay attention to some valuable feedback for you. Ask them how they feel about your approach. Try something like "What feedback do you have for me on how to have tough conversations with you? What can I do better so we can both leave these conversations with the same understanding and ensure you're clear and motivated to take action?"
If, after diagnosing why an employee is deflecting feedback and then taking appropriate measures to be heard, your employee still doesn't change their behavior, it's time to have a different conversation. This might be a point where you elevate your dialog to meta points that objectively list the type of feedback you've provided and what the person has or hasn't done. Outline what results need to change and by when. Then ask for help on how best to ensure the end results are met.
You love your job because you aspire to challenging goals. Delivering difficult feedback to someone who refutes it might not rank among the things you love about your job. But by taking the time to better understand what's behind your employee's behavior and then addressing it, you can all go back to what you love: producing results and making an impact.