How to debrief colleagues when they don’t make the cut

Sunder Ramachandran guides TJ through giving difficult feedback to an employee.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

As a leader of a large team, I find myself in two different situations often.

  • The opportunity to coach colleagues and help them speed up to different positions within the enterprise.
  • The opportunity to debrief those who did not make the cut as part of an internal assessment process.

As is the case, the former is an engaging process spread over months. The latter is an emotional 30-minute discussion where you must get to closure, establish perspective, extract lessons, and move forward. As managers, we experience both the events ourselves and this gives us a perspective in terms of what it means, when the decision is not in your favour.

The line manager debrief in this context can have a big impact on the colleague. When I have got this right, it has led to a sense of direction and sped up learning for the colleague. On occasions, I have got this wrong; It has resulted in disengagement with the organisation, a decision to leave on impulse or stay on with a false sense of hope.

Dismissing the colleague’s emotion is insensitive and showing detachment with the outcome is defeatist.

I have found this to be the case with folks across cultures that I have had the opportunity work with. This is not an advisory piece on how you should prepare for this conversation but a reinforcement on the critical role of the line manager in this debrief and the lessons I have learnt so far.

First, it matters, and it’s OK to be disappointed

I have made the mistake of either bringing a level of indifference to the equation by saying that the result doesn’t make a difference only to realise later, how much it infuriated the colleague. The other end of the pendulum is philosophising and saying something to the effect of ‘If you didn’t get the job, it wasn’t meant for you’.

Pro tip – My outcomes have been better when I have been empathetic and direct. It must start with an acknowledgement of the colleagues’ disappointment, and this emotion can fuel the next steps. Dismissing the colleague’s emotion is insensitive and showing detachment with the outcome is defeatist.

It’s the organisation’s loss

I have made this statement as well thinking; It will deliver the self-esteem boost that the colleague requires. The missing perspective here is how it positions the organisation and sets up the colleague for future opportunities. As a manager, these conversations are moments when you either add to the organisation’s value proposition or erode it.

Pro tip – We are as much champions of the organisation as we are of the teams we lead. It’s not about leaning towards one over the other rather to leverage your unique position to deliver meaningful outcomes for the team. My outcomes have been better when I have worked with the colleague to accept the decision without feeling ‘undone’

The ‘not fair’ narrative

This shows up in the conversation in many shapes i.e. the organisation is not transparent, there is favouritism and the like. The tendency to judge the organisation harshly is common during such phases. One could see loyalists who have spent decades turn sour as the decision was unfavourable for them.


It’s easy to give in to this narrative, especially when one of your top performers does not make the cut. Again, it’s counterproductive and does not set the colleague for success. This narrative does not change the outcome and pushes the colleague further down the disengagement trap.

Pro tip – Move the narrative from ‘fairness’ to ‘influencing the decision maker’. Don’t waste time judging whether the process was fair / transparent, etc. While these are the fundamentals of a progressive organisation, our job is to find out who the decision maker is and try to influence them to the extent we can.

It’s not uncommon to find colleagues who are super eager to get a job but have a poor sense of who the decision makers for that job are and the subsequent efforts to influence them. Being excellent at the current job and having a positive influence on the key decision makers is all that you can control and impact.

Everything else is noise. Helping the colleague come to terms with this reality delivers better outcomes in this crucial conversation.

What’s next

This is as much a ‘what’s next’ conversation as it is about taking stock of what happened. It’s important to establish a common understanding of how you can support the colleague as they move forward. It’s an opportunity to build emotional intelligence, self-awareness and double down on areas of growth.

Pro tip – Enable the colleague to pick an area and go deep. Some of the questions that have guided me in this conversation include:

  • What was your overall impression of the process?
  • What do you wish, you would have done differently?
  • What skill / capability will you pick and go deep?
  • What will be your engagement plan to influence stakeholders who could be potential decision makers for your future jobs?

In summary, I will quote Robert Kiyosaki, the famous author of the ‘Rich Dad,’ series: “Get over your fear of failure and rejection. Get comfortable with it. Until you can handle it, you can’t move forward.”

What has your experience been of coaching colleagues in this situation? I look forward to learning from you.


About the author

Sunder Ramachandra, FLPI is General Manager – Training, India and Capability Workstream Lead, Emerging Markets for GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. He can be reached on twitter @sundertrg



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