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Defensive Behavior and the Bosses That Provoke It

Managing self-protective responses in the workplace is up to employees and their supervisors alike.

Defensiveness. It’s ugly. We don’t want to do it, but we do it nonetheless. Driven by fear and emotion, our brains shut down and we lose the ability to think and relate to others. Being defensive has derailed many careers, as it impedes one’s ability to learn from mistakes, build strong interpersonal relationships, accept and benefit from differing perspectives, accept accountability for poor outcomes, or take initiative.

To illustrate the negative impact of defensive behavior, consider the real-life story of an executive I’ll call Ron (not his real name). Ron is a very talented, extremely hard-working executive who is feeling a bit overwhelmed and insecure having just taken over a new, larger role. One night, he received a call about a severe manufacturing delay. In the morning, Ron communicated the issue to his boss, who asked, “What happened?” And Ron, feeling defensive about what could be seen as a mistake on his part, threw one of his peers under the bus. Ron told his boss that he had communicated the sales forecast to his counterpart in operations, but this colleague had not adjusted inventory or production schedules accordingly. The truth, as you might expect, was actually more nuanced. Although Rob had, in fact, communicated the potential for higher sales months before, it wasn’t considered a certainty, and neither Ron nor his colleague had followed up to finalize the forecast and plan.

As Ron’s supervisor reflected on Ron’s behavior—current and past—he recognized a pattern of defensive behavior. Defensive behavior calls into question character and competence. After all, it’s impossible to trust someone who can’t be vulnerable—and vulnerability, more than anything, is the one trait defensive people can’t bear to show. As a result, Ron was asked to work with a coach to reduce his defensiveness and, ultimately, improve his peer relationships, accountability, and integrity.

Ron’s story isn’t all that unusual. We all have a tendency to feel defensive from time to time. But even without a coach, it is possible for individuals to manage their own defensiveness with a few, relatively simple steps:

1)      Identify the physiological signs related to heightened emotions, such as clammy hands, flushing, narrowed vision, and rapid pulse.

2)      Manage emotions by taking a break to reframe worst-case-scenario thinking. Rather than thinking, “I have made a mistake, and I am going to fail in this job,” Ron should have told himself, “Problems are expected, and my job is to help my organization learn from them.”

3)      Say less rather than more—particularly in the heat of the moment. When asked, “What happened?” Ron should have said something like, “We’re not sure yet, but we’re looking into it,” and then gone to talk to his colleague to make sure they understood what had gone wrong.

4)      Use inclusive pronouns: We and us, rather than I, him, or you. If Ron had said, “We knew about the vulnerability but didn’t deem it significant enough to remediate it,” the focus of everyone’s attention would have been on the problem, not the people.

5)      Share credit during the good times so that others will be inclined to help bear the blame during the bad times.

Share credit during the good times and others will help bear the blame

But let’s not lay all the fault on Ron—his boss could use a coach as well. Instead of asking, “What happened?” and triggering the defensive response, the supervisor could have asked, “How bad are the delays? How certain are you that you know the root cause? What do you need from me? When can I expect an update?” According to David Rock in his book Quiet Leadership, leaders should ask a series of questions to help their people give themselves feedback rather than dive into problem solving and evoke defensive reactions. And, when it’s time to reflect on lessons learned, leaders need to schedule discussions at the right time and place (early in the week, mid-morning, in a quiet café), make sure that their people are ready and willing to talk by asking permission (“I want to make sure you are ready to have this conversation now. Are you in a reasonable frame of mind to do this?”), and calm fears by placing the conversation in the larger context (“Your job is not in jeopardy, I am not here to get on your case about what happened, but to help you fulfill your potential in your role.”).

“When we haven’t performed well, we feel defensive, guilty, upset, frustrated, angry, or any combination of these,” Rock writes. “Trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem heightens these emotions, which isn’t helpful to anyone.” He believes that “understanding the cause of failure is very helpful for managing processes, but when managing people we need a different approach.”

This may sound like a bunch of New Age psychobabble, but Rock cites research that reveals that “the most likely response to criticism will be a negative one, the next most likely response is no impact, and the chance that criticism will be helpful is about once every three weeks if you dished it out every workday.”

As leaders, we want our people to become the best version of themselves. To be sure, defensive behavior should not be tolerated; it’s detrimental to the individual and the organization. But just as surely, leaders need to make sure they themselves, aren’t provoking the defensive behavior, and must work to foster self-reflection rather than self-recrimination.



Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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