Leadership & Professional Development

How leaders can address defensiveness in the workplace to foster productivity and harmony

October 27, 2020 12:22 am

Jill Geisler

If left unchecked, defensiveness can affect both the office environment and a leader’s ability to manage effectively.

Two types of defensiveness can harm an organization. One is cultural, the other individual.

First, companies that lack a culture of collaboration often spawn silos — teams or departments that look out for their members and see the rest of the organization as competitors or threats.

Without collaboration, a culture of defensiveness can easily take root. People hear suggestions as criticism and see change as threatening. Research shows that they are less likely to support or build upon ideas that come from them, not us.

On an individual level, defensiveness can be a career-limiting trait, especially for managers. When supervisors push back or shut down in the face of negative feedback, they create walls that block trusting relationships. Team members hesitate to bring problems to them and rarely, if ever, offer critiques. Employees find workarounds to avoid the discomfort of their manager’s defensiveness.

But eventually, the accumulated problems and frustrations become widely known, or they surface if the organization conducts employee engagement surveys. By then, significant damage has been done to morale, productivity and retention.

How defensiveness emerges

No one gets up at the start of the day thinking, “I sure hope I get criticized today!” We like to think of ourselves as good people. When someone tells us we’ve messed up or done harm, we want to preserve our sense of self-worth. Our first response may automatically be defensive. That’s important to understand about ourselves and others. 

In fact, there’s something called “attribution theory,” according to which we often attribute our missteps to external forces (“I snapped at you because I was under a lot of pressure”) but ascribe the wrongs of others to internal factors like their character or values (“She snapped at me because she’s mean”). Learning about attribution theory helped me catch myself when I would get defensive, understand why others get defensive, and take a more thoughtful, if difficult, reality check about my response to criticism.

It takes real effort to build a culture where criticism is candid and caring. Here’s a checklist of questions to help assess this aspect of your company’s culture:

  • How well do the top leaders deal with organizational errors or shortcomings? Do they take responsibility, apologize and act?
  • How is failure handled? Are people publicly criticized, or do we turn negative experiences into lessons for next time?
  • Do we debrief after programs or projects — or at team meetings — by asking, “What worked? What needs work?”
  • What do we do with criticism? If the situation presents a quick and easy fix, do we seize the moment, or do we get bogged down in a bureaucratic process?
  • What do we reward? If collaboration isn’t woven into our job descriptions and evaluations, we’re making silos, and defensiveness, more likely.
  • Do we coach employees and colleagues whose defensiveness or criticism of others is more destructive than constructive?

Responding to defensiveness

Before you start a conversation where the other person could get defensive, think about your goal. Is it to find answers, initiate an immediate change to a problematic behavior, provide a friendly heads-up or give notice that the person’s employment is in jeopardy? As I wrote in a previous column, calibrate your opening line to the seriousness of the issue and your knowledge of the person.

Next, consider these steps.

Be calm, persistent and repetitive. This approach particularly is important if the other person is being defensive beyond the normal, automatic response that people have before they move to listening more deeply and understanding.

Keep stating your goal: “I just want to make sure we’re on the same page for the future. We need to preapprove overtime.”

Listen first. In fact, ask if the person has more to say. Repeat back what you heard, so the person knows you received the message. 

Respond to criticism with context, where possible. For example, the employee might be describing how the team feels unsettled because there’s still no formal plan for dealing with the potential impact on staffing during the upcoming flu season. You know a plan is in the works but has been held up for one more meeting. Explain that.

If you think the criticism is untrue and unfair, calmly explain the facts and why it’s important for the person to understand them.

Look for the core message. Always ask yourself: Even if the criticism is poorly delivered, what’s the underlying, positive goal that the person is trying to express? Consider how you can get past emotions or frustrations to focus on the real story.

Remember that in critical conversations of this sort, you are balancing the goal you want to accomplish with the relationship you want to have in the future.

Addressing defensiveness in the current climate

There’s a reason why you hear the term racial reckoning being used to describe this moment in our society. In its deepest sense, a reckoning is an accounting of our deeds, both positive and negative.

Leaders are making a commitment to examine the acts of omission and commission that have led to injustice in organizations and society. To do that fully and honestly is to listen and learn from criticism — more importantly, to invite it and act on it.

Don’t let defensiveness defeat long-overdue solutions. 


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