You’ve got something important to communicate to someone on your team — and maybe they don’t want to hear it. Before you even begin to deliver your message, you feel a pit in your stomach as you start to fear the dreaded defensiveness.
As leaders, we’ve got the responsibility to have difficult conversations and challenge people. Sometimes they thank us.
Sometimes they anti-thank us.
An Important Perspective on Defensiveness
Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling under threat (whether we truly are or not). The same mechanics, the same emotions and neuro-chemicals, that would get triggered if someone mugged you at gun-point in an alley can be triggered when someone criticizes us. As far as our brains are concerned, when someone (especially someone in authority) doesn’t like what we’ve done, our lives are under threat. A leader’s disapproval, in the language of our primitive brain, means we may be excluded from the tribe and die alone in the wilderness.
Defensiveness is a survival instinct. When people get defensive, it’s a sign that their brains have sounded the life-threat alarm, and they have little conscious control of their level of defense.
So as supervisors, managers, leaders, we’ll be rewarded for understanding and remembering that, extending grace, and helping calm the primitive brain so they can regain their conscious ability to bring their best to the moment.
5 Ways to Diffuse Defensiveness
- “Ok.” Walk away. If someone who reports to you offers some reason, excuse, or denial for something you’ve given them corrective feedback about, say, “Ok.” and walk away. Benefits of this VERY DIFFICULT practice include: a) You show them respect. b) You avoid an argument that will degrade your relationship even if you win. c) You preserve their dignity by not proving them wrong and dragging their childishness into the light. d) You put them on notice and provide an opportunity for them to reflect in the privacy of their own mind. They start to build their own case for not doing that behavior again. Congratulations, you’ve successfully avoided being trapped in a power-struggle and ego battle. You can always address a future repetition (if there is one) anew.
- Follow the “Get out of my head Rule.” Avoid saying anything that would require you to be psychic in order to be certain is correct — something who’s existence is in the other person’s head. Examples include, attitudes, thoughts, mindsets, and intentions. When I criticize your attitude, the first thing you’ll think is, “My attitude is fine!” Prevent defensiveness by speaking to behaviors instead of attitudes and thoughts.
- Ask Cy Wakeman’s question, “What would greatness look like right now?” When faced with a difficult situation, we humans will often tend to argue for our limitations (a defensive tool to protect ourselves from the frustration and disappointment of failure that’s “our own fault”). And the mind can’t leave a question alone. When we hear a question, our mind answers it, whether we want it to or not. So, when you ask a defensive team member, “What would greatness look like right now,” their mind will start to supply answers. Some of those answers will get them past their arguments for limitations or the excuses for behavior that’s less than ideal.
- Ask, “If you absolutely had to succeed, what would you do?” As with the question above, the person you ask may or may not answer this question out loud, or honestly. Regardless, their mind will supply answers that will arm them to more powerfully meet similar circumstances in the future.
- Build strong relationships of trust! This is the most important strategy on the list. You can’t wait for the moment of defensiveness to have the foundation of trust that will enable you to respond powerfully. You’ve got to have put money in the bank. You’ve got to be a known ally. A known, strong ally has much more permission and credence when addressing a destructive moment of defensiveness. You’ve got to make deposits into the relationship bank in order to make withdrawals. The best tool a manager has for building strong relationships is the weekly 1-on-1 between the manager and each of their direct reports.
Strategy, Tactics, and Science Trump Style
“Leadership Style” is a trope in business. Almost every leader’s job interview includes the question, “Tell us about your leadership style.”
Leadership, importantly, asks us to influence the behaviors of others. It’s time to stop talking about leadership style, and talk instead about “Leadership Science.”
Where brains are involved, the science is clearer every day. Some leadership strategies work. Some don’t. And some backfire.
These 5 tactics for diffusing defensiveness are sound because they support a strategy of soothing the primitive brain, of not poking the frightened bear.
That’s a winning strategy.
Feel free to reach out if you’re interested in learning more about a comprehensive system for leading and teamwork that’s aligned with science.