Sometimes, trusted colleagues can become highly defensive when leaders disagree with them or make decisions they don’t support. As leaders attempt to work through the disagreement, they can face stiff resistance, as the other person’s defensiveness becomes a shield during the conflict.
When team members get defensive, they dig in, stop listening, and make excuses for their resistance. Once others become defensive to an idea or a decision, gaining their subscription becomes double the effort. If not handled effectively, it can fracture a trusted relationship.
Understanding what creates defensiveness gives leaders a better idea of how to avoid it in the first place. In most cases, defensiveness can be cut off at the pass, as they say, before it becomes a problem.
To clarify this issue, psychologists tell us that defensiveness is both a feeling and a behavior.
The feeling can occur without our brain’s permission and elicits a sense of frustration, anger, or contempt.
The behavioral response is typically to withdraw, become sarcastic, or to argue forcefully against the source. In many instances, leaders experience forms of defensiveness without even knowing it. At other times, it is painfully obvious that the other party has become defensive and is now in a self-protective mode.
To combat and negate defensiveness from others, it is important to highlight that disagreement is about issues and defensiveness is about relationships.
Disagreement, in itself, is never the root cause of defensiveness. Instead, it is the relational messages others receive from leaders that produces the reaction. Anytime a team member perceives a leader as judging or evaluating them negatively because of their viewpoint, defensiveness is highly likely. Like all threats to self-identity, or face, when we view others as evaluating us negatively or constraining our autonomy to act the way we desire, we become defensive.
To prevent this response, the best leaders are highly attuned to how others might become defensive and work hard to eliminate the conditions that give rise to it. This starts by clarifying before, during, and after disagreements that others have a right to their views and that reasonable people often disagree. Assuring team members that they are not being seen negatively or being judged harshly for their candid views is paramount.
When decisions leave team members with less jurisdiction or autonomy, the best leaders emphasize what others do control and seek ways to give them ownership over how a decision is executed.
Defensiveness stifles performance and makes everything more difficult. The best leaders work hard to defeat it. They give people the idea affirmation they need to prevent it.