Leaders Aren’t Immune to Defensiveness

Recently I worked with an executive team on how to be more productive and candid during disagreements. We had a deep conversation about productive and healthy conflict. Then, using that discussion, we examined the data measuring their teamwork behaviors.

Nearly everyone admitted these truths:

  • I can get defensive sometimes.
  • When someone else in the room gets defensive, I stop engaging.
  • This pattern keeps us from finishing conversations and generating the best ideas.
  • Because of the lack of closure, people have side meetings and/or meetings after the meeting.

So, what might this look like?

Karla is reviewing some procedural documents and says to her supervisor, “Gabriel, the preservice documents are unclear. Clients don’t know if you’re going to print the reports or not.”

Frustrated at this feedback, Gabriel reacts immediately. “Of course I’m going to print them. Six pages later it says ‘Gabriel brings the reports.’ How can that possibly be unclear??!!”

Karla says… nothing, because you can’t tell Gabriel anything when he gets like that.

Later, Gabriel goes to Marlene and plunks down in the chair across from her. “Ugh, Karla is all up in my face again about spoon-feeding people.” Marlene purses her lips. “You know, she might have a point.” Gabriel sighs as he reconsiders, but he doesn’t act.

During Gabriel’s side meeting, Karla has one with Danae. “Gabriel just can’t take feedback,” Karla says. Danae agrees. “Yeah. I’ve learned long ago to avoid giving him feedback and just make the changes myself.” Karla decides to make the changes to the document and resolves to not “poke the bear” again.

The outcome?

Wasted time, hard feelings, and some progress, but not in the best way.

So how did the executive team I worked with push forward? After discussion, the group resolved to do the following:

  • Avoid getting defensive by pausing and finding a calmer way to make their point.
  • Not let another person’s defensiveness keep them from continuing to share.

Sometimes it’s this simple: 

  • When you catch yourself about to get defensive, pause and take a breath and say something like, “Go on” or “Tell me more.” Then, when you do respond, try “Yes, that might work if…” This phrase allows the conversation to continue verses “Yeah, but…,” which tends to stop open conversation.
  • When someone gets defensive, ignore the tone, stay patient, and remember that they are emotionally, and perhaps financially or ethically, invested in their point of view. Of course they’ll get a little defensive. Because of their investment, the discussion is likely important, so don’t stop. Stay empathetic as you press on.

The very next day, the executive team got to put their new rules into practice. They had a critical issue to discuss. By using their new standards, the discussion went smoother and quicker than similar discussions had in the past.

A side lesson: It makes sense to talk about the process of talking. This exec team is busy, and time is precious in their business. Even so, the three hours they set aside to discuss their process with each other will save hundreds of hours in the future. If you or your team would like assistance with this, um, let me know. 🙂

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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