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Jan Hills

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Evidence-based agony aunt: a conversation with a defensive employee


Our evidence-based agony aunt, Jan Hills, uses findings from neuroscience and psychology to tell you how to solve your organisational problems in brain-savvy ways, that work with the mind's natural tendecies and not against it. Got a problem you want her to look at it? Drop us a line at We'll get back quickly.


"I have one employee I really need help with. When I give him feedback on his performance he just gets defensive, won't listen to anything, and acts like I'm the one causing the problem. What can I do?"


Considering what is going on in your colleague’s brain may help.

People experience feedback as a threat in the brain. Just having someone say ‘I want to give you some feedback’ creates a threat response. Notice how it feels when someone says that to you and you will know what I mean.

Or think of the worst person you have ever worked for and notice how it makes you feel. That’s a mild threat response.

When we feel threatened there aren’t really enough cognitive resources left to hear what is being said, let along think about how to act differently.

And our natural urge is to avoid what is causing the threat, to get away or to defend ourselves. It’s the fight/ flight response. Sounds like your employee is activating fight.

Try asking your employee to assess his own performance and to have a conversation with you to verify and elaborate on what they assess.

Nine times out of 10 employees know where they are going wrong.

And crucially, we seem not to get the same threat response when we have made the assessment ourselves and when we ask for the feedback.

Good luck. Do let us know how it goes.

For more information, take a look at our neuroscience-based article on exactly what feedback does to the brain.

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Jan Hills


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