Defending against Defensiveness

Aggressive executive
Who me?

OK, marks out of 10 on the defensiveness scale for the following remark:

“He’s being defensive – I’m just realistic”.

Personally, I’d give it a 9½.  I consider myself: pragmatic; expert; honest and forthright.  You consider me: resistant, argumentative, cynical and rude.  I think I’m simply giving you the benefit of my considerable experience to educate you on the flaws in your argument.  You think I’m negative with a major attitude problem.

By and large, defensive behaviour is easy to identify in others, but hard to recognise in ourselves.  In work, such people are often simultaneously high performing and high conflict individuals.  In team workshops, if I cite Roy Keane as a possible example, it stimulates heated debate – but everyone knows what I mean. They want him on their team, but few feel capable of managing him.  To be fair to this great perfectionist, most people can name their colleagues who fall into this category, though I’ve yet to witness anyone publically admit to defensiveness themselves.

It’s easy to be judgemental and ascribe evil motivations to people who don’t agree with us or refuse to follow ‘reasonable instructions’.  What would happen if we recognised their underlying vulnerability?  Sounds too soft for you – well, consider what might be driving their disruptive behaviour?

Defensiveness is fundamentally driven by an unconscious fear of one or more of the following:

  • Abandonment“if things change, I’ll be left behind” – these are angry people
  • Inferiority“It’s your fault I’m on the back foot” – they can be insulting and demeaning to others (“Do you know who I am?”)
  • Subjugation – afraid of being dominated, so they are dominating and manipulative
  • Being ignored – may throw tantrums – it’s all a bit dramatic and intense
  • Betrayal – may be paranoid and take the Willie John McBride approach (“Get your retaliation in first”)

If you want to see such behaviour in action, just observe your colleagues at the next meeting you attend.  In his article on the subject, Bill Eddy suggests two underlying characteristics of defensive behaviour:

  1. BAD – Behaviour that’s Aggressively Defensive
  2. MAD – Mistaken Assessment of Danger

DEALING WITH DEFENSIVENESS: Understanding the BAD and MAD allows us to deal more effectively with defensive people.  Here are Eddy’s three approaches:

  1. Reduce MAD
  2. Set limits on BAD
  3. Avoid giving “judgemental” Feedback

Reduce MAD
To remove the sense of danger, keep communicating openly with defensive people.  They will be reluctant to believe you.  Consistent contact, backed up by consistent action, and they will eventually get the message.  (Think Doubting Thomas – an external expert or third party endorsement may carry more weight than your words.)

Limit Bad
If you’re in a position of authority, don’t condone the bad behaviour.  You hand power over when you don’t address the issue.  Even worse, everyone else knows it too.  For example, if you are chairing a meeting and the same person regularly holds forth and talks over others, you’ve simply got to nip it in the bud.  By all means, they should have an opportunity to express their views, but so too should everyone else.  “We’ve heard John’s views on the subject, now, let’s get another perspective – Michael, what options would you like us to consider?”

Give Feedback
As for the feedback, it’s a classic case of removing emotions, and having an evidence-based conversation.  “You’ve got a bad attitude!”  That’s absolutely the wrong approach.  Instead, play the ball, not the man.  If you don’t know how to have that crucial conversation, just click for some tips.

Finally, if you’re the one who’s regularly told YOU’RE being defensive – maybe those people have got a point.  Certainly, you’ve got a right to be heard, you just don’t have the right to always be right!

(If you’re having problems dealing with MAD or BAD people, drop me a line.)

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