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How to Diffuse Defensive Behavior

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

By Ashley Laabs

Imagine that you have called a meeting with one of your salespeople to discuss her performance. She is a valuable member of the team who consistently closes sales, but you notice that she would be doing better if she didn’t default to selling products and services at the lowest price point.

During the meeting, you tell her that she needs to start selling more of the high-end products, and you’re surprised when she gets defensive. She lists off reasons why she sells the way she does, and because you don’t want to upset her further, you kindly tell her she should consider watching a sales webinar or set up a time for a coaching session. One week later, her sales have completely dropped off, and she hasn’t spoken to you except to give you her two weeks’ notice.

Now you’re caught off guard, understaffed, and everyone else on the team is freaking out. What went wrong?

As a manager, you will inevitably have to deliver criticism, but the challenge is to manage the friction or discomfort of these situations so they result in growth rather than resentment. If you want to show your team that you’re on their side, heed these do’s and don’ts for diffusing defensive behavior:

Don’t bottle up feedback. The longer you withhold feedback from an employee, the more difficult it is to have a civil discussion. When you discuss a list of issues that happened over a course of months, it can make employees feel like they are in a fight for their job. Instead, create a coaching environment where informal feedback is expected. This will help you develop your team on an ongoing basis while alleviating the stress of formal meetings.

Do respect the emotions and perceptions of others. Treat your team like people instead of robots. There are two sets of emotions in every discussion, which is why managers should practice empathy as part of their problem solving process. Anticipate how an employee might feel about the situation and do your best to reflect that in the way you talk to him or her. If a salesperson is anxious to talk about her performance, preface the conversation by talking about her value to the company. If an employee is feeling defensive about how they handled a disgruntled customer, let him know you understand his actions before issuing suggestions.

Don’t make feedback personal. You can’t change anyone’s personality, and you’ll be hard-pressed to change strengths or weaknesses. When you tell an employee that they are timid, careless, or unfriendly, she is more likely to feel insulted or threatened, since she feels like you’re judging her as a person. For the best results, focus on actions: Discuss specific instances of tardiness instead of calling her lazy; remind her of the best way to clean a sunbed instead of calling her careless.

Do explain the context, expectations and consequences. No one likes to be blindsided, so don’t hide your reason for meeting. Let them know if they are in danger of being fired or not. Explain the changes you expect them to make, and outline the consequences of not making those changes. Don’t get so caught up in being nice that you diminish the seriousness of the situation. Some things are mandatory while others are suggestions. Your employees should be able to tell the difference.

Don’t create a confrontational environment. If you want to facilitate cooperation, you have to show employees where to direct their energy. It’s not them against you; it’s both of you against the problem. Getting on the same team lets you access their insight instead of their excuses. Ask questions and actively listen. In many cases, your team will have their own insightful solutions.

Do consider your own performance. Before you point fingers at an employee, take the time to consider if you bear any responsibility for an issue. Did you neglect training? Is there a procedure for this situation? Do your procedures really work? Were you unclear? Many employees feel uncomfortable giving their superiors feedback, so it may take extra investigation to learn if you’re somehow contributing to a problem. But if you are willing to show your vulnerability and own up when you’re at fault, your team is going to respect you for it.

It’s not easy to put your team at ease about receiving feedback, but practicing these principles consistently will help them see your talks as an opportunity instead of a threat.


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