How to manage a defensive person

Most individuals respond positively to constructive criticism – but others react negatively and defensively. Here are some tips for breaking through defensive barriers

A culture of defensiveness in the workplace can become highly toxic. It leads people to seek to blame others to avoid taking responsibility for their own mistakes, creating a siege mentality and ultimately undermining trust. Yet defensive behaviour is a natural response to fear of failure in some cases. So, what is the best way to manage it?
A climate of trustBefore asking yourself in frustration, “why can’t she take criticism?” or “why does he always react so defensively?”, it’s worth taking a look at your own management style and the prevailing culture in your workplace, and specifically at the level of trust that exists within the organisational hierarchy. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey of 33,000 people around the world, finds that only 72% of employees trust the organisation they work for. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that people react to situations in which they feel insecure or under attack by seeking to deflect blame and put up defensive barriers. 

Dr Katelin Illes, principal lecturer in leadership and development at University of Westminster Business School, writes in a 2015 report on leadership, trust and communication: “There are many reasons for leaders to strive to create a trusting work environment made up of trusting relationships. These include: better cooperation, more effective problem solving, a positive work climate, higher employee engagement, higher job satisfaction and lower levels of turnover.”
Compliment sandwichHowever, even as a manager in the most healthily functional workplace, you will occasionally find yourself needing to give negative feedback to a person you suspect will react defensively. In this case, present it as the centre of a ‘compliment sandwich’, advises strategy consultant Lisa Earle McLeod in a LinkedIn article. Begin by providing genuine praise of a task in which the person has excelled, then move on to explain what ‘good’ looks like in the area where they have fallen short; and, finally, end the conversation on a positive note. 
Empathy is essentialCreate empathy, suggests journalist Josalin Mitchell in an article for Bizfluent, a business news and information website, by making it clear that providing critical feedback is challenging for you as a manager as well as for the person on the receiving end. She writes: “For instance, it might be helpful to say something along the lines of, ‘I know it’s hard to hear critical things, but it is just as hard for me to give criticism. Especially when I feel misinterpreted. I really do not want to hurt your feelings.’ Use this open admission as a first step to open communication with the employees and an attitude of solidarity, rather than divisiveness.”

If, despite your best efforts, you still run into “fight, flight and tears”, take a step back from the conversation and help the person articulate their feelings, writes Rebecca Zucker in an article for leadership expertise firm Next Step Partners. “The key to dealing with defensiveness (or other emotional reactions) is to push the ‘pause’ button on the feedback conversation and deal with the reaction. Think of approaching this part of the conversation in a way that is curious, compassionate and detached,” Zucker advises.
Don’t let it deterYou as a leader need to learn to recognise and manage defensive behaviour in the same way as you would any other performance issue, according to an article in The Management Center, which runs coaching services for executive directors. If you’re reluctant to deal with a colleague’s defensiveness, you’ll be more likely to ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away, undermining your effectiveness as a manager. The article advises: “If the staff member continues to be defensive, don’t let that stop you from giving feedback … whatever you do, don’t allow a defensiveness habit to circumvent feedback conversations altogether.”

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Published: 05 Oct 2018
  • Career Development
  • The Review
  • leadership
  • Career advice
  • Behaviour

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