23
Mar

If you’re like me, you have days when you feel like it’s a constant uphill battle; like you’re doing you’re very best but it just doesn’t seem to be good enough.  On those days, even the best intentioned feedback can trigger a defensive reaction.  It’s not a good thing, but you know it’s going to happen every once in a while when you’re really pushing hard.

How do your teammates react when you get defensive? When you put the walls up, do they pile on and make their point more aggressively in hopes you will tear down the wall? Do they get sarcastic or poke fun at your expense? Do they whisper about you at the water cooler? Now imagine how you would like your teammates to react when you get defensive.  Are you willing to pay it forward?

Here are a few ideas for how to respond to defensiveness in a way that shows you’re on their side.

When it’s triggered by embarrassment

Defensiveness can be triggered by embarrassment when feedback points out a mistake that should have been caught or highlights a gap in capability.  If you think you’re seeing embarrassment, be careful not to make your teammate feel ashamed. Instead, make the path forward seem clear and manageable: “What it will take is revising these 2 charts with the updated numbers. Walk us through what the new storyline would be.” That should counteract the digging in and engage your teammate’s brain in forward thinking.

When it’s triggered by a foreign perspective

When she feels like the feedback came out of left field, your teammate’s propensity might be to get defensive and slough it off as ridiculous. In that scenario, use big open-ended questions to change to a tone of exploration. “Say more about your thinking on this.” When you hear how she arrived at her point of view, you can gently introduce other ideas: “You’ve focused this on our products business. I’m thinking of it for services too. How would that affect the plan?”

When it’s triggered by laziness

If you hear something like “I did what you asked me to do,” or “I think it’s fine,” you are stumbling on resistance that is due to laziness.  In that case, appeal to their sense of obligation to the team. Try something like “If we were really pushing this to the limits, what else could we include?”  I wrote a post recently about research into the value of guilt in motivating performance on teams. Using that approach, you could say: “We’re counting on you, this is a really key part of the report. How could you beef it up?”

You’ll notice in each of these examples, your response leaves your teammate some room to work their way out of the corner.  Each response moves the conversation off of the controversial starting point and on to a discussion of where from here.

When a teammate behaves poorly, it’s easy to follow suit, but it only sets off a domino reaction that wastes everyone’s time and energy.  If you increase the pressure on a person who feels cornered, he will likely either lash out or shut down—neither of which is productive for your team. Help your teammates out of their defensive ruts…isn’t that what you would want them to do for you?

For related reading, check out my Psychology Today defensiveness quiz. Read it here.

Further Reading

When Conflict Gets Emotional

When Feedback Triggers Backlash

Navigating a Difficult Political Situation

One Response to How to help a teammate who is being defensive

  1. Pylin

    Thanks for the post, Liane! I am wondering about the third point though. I had a colleague who said “I think it’s fine” and I attributed it to us having different standards so I went back and double checked the work myself. How can you tell if the comment is motivated by laziness or difference in work quality standard, and would the approach be different?

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