The Yes Blog

5 Ways to Deal With Defensiveness at Work

5 Ways to Easily Address Defensiveness At Work

Let’s face it. There’s a lot of defensiveness at work. It’s part of the human condition. Despite how much of it we face (and exhibit) leaders around the world struggle to easily address defensiveness. And because continuous improvement is essential for reaching our goals, we need tools for addressing defensiveness at work.

So… Let’s look at 5 ways leaders can keep defensiveness at bay.

The Tools:

  1. “Ok.” Walk away. This tool leaves no space for defense to continue. If someone meets your request or feedback with excuses or other forms of defensiveness at work, don’t argue. When you argue, you’re asking for more argument. People are tempted to double down on their defense and defend the defense, throwing “good money after bad.” You perpetuate the power struggle. Instead, say, “ok,” and walk away. Saying, “ok,” is not an acceptance of the excuse. It’s an acknowledgement. If you’re following our guidance on feedback, you’ll have an opportunity to give them feedback on this same behavior again later, if/when it repeats. And they’re on notice about the behavior you want (and the one you don’t) regardless of the excuse.
  2. The “Get Out of My Head” Rule – Make observations. Leave out your interpretations. People’s reasons for behaving the way they do — their attitudes and motivations — live in their heads. You don’t have access. You’re guessing. What’s your first response when someone says, “You have a crappy attitude?” I’m betting your first response is, “No I don’t.” Breaking the “Get Out of My Head” Rule will almost always trigger defense in others — just as it does in you.
  3. “What would greatness look like right now?” Cy Wakeman’s book, No Ego, is a terrific read, saturated with excellent leadership guidance. One of my favorite take-aways was the question, “What would greatness look like right now?” A question is one of a leader’s greatest tools because of the way the human brain works. If I ask you, “What would you do if you suddenly lost your left shoe?” what happens? You’re imagining it right now. Thinking about what you’d do. Ask the brain a question, it starts to supply answers. Defensive or not — whether the person you asks honors you with an answer or not — the person you ask will begin to formulate answers in their mind. They cannot help it.
  4. “What if you absolutely HAD to succeed?” Another question. Asking this is another way to leverage the neurological imperative to answer any question. Faced with obstacles, some people fold and give up. Their creativity can be shut down by fear and frustration. Faced with a question, the creative mind wakes up. And the new perspectives offered by the creative answers the brain supplies can start to dissolve defensiveness at work.
  5. Build strong relationships of trust. Leadership leans on a foundation of trust. Defensiveness comes from a fear of rejection, exclusion, judgment. When people trust you, they’re far less likely to defend against the potential you’ll reject, exclude, or judge them. NEVER do these things. Each time you do, trust will take a major hit, and you’ll destine more defensiveness in the future. Build trust, and you’ll magnify the effectiveness of the other tools on this list.

So What?

It’s your job as a leader to bring out the best in the people around you. Defensiveness happens. You’ve got to expect it!

When you freak out because someone gets defensive, consider this… You freak out because someone’s told you, “I’m afraid.”

So, the next time someone in your charge gives you an excuse, puts up obstacles, defends… Here’s what I want you to hear…

I want you to hear them telling you, “I’m afraid.” Then I want you to respond as if that’s what they actually said. And instead of exacerbating their fears, remember these five tools to easily address defensiveness at work.


Do you have a system across your company for, “This is how we manage people around here”? If you’re interested, we can talk about installing a great system company wide, or you can send some individual managers to our next Manager’s Upskilling Sprint to gain tools for effectively leading people.

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