How to Manage Defensiveness at Work

In the workplace, there are few things as frustrating as a highly defensive co-worker (except for maybe the break room refrigerator bandit). Defensive co-workers argue, blame, deflect, and display a litany of RAJE (Rationalize, Apologize, Justify, Excuses) behaviors that undermine the situation at hand.

DefensivenessWe are all susceptible to RAJE behaviors.  Sometimes, with apologies for example, they are even appropriate. But most of us have encountered those who make daily, if not more frequent use of these behaviors. One apology can be appreciated. Constant apologies are signs of serious trouble.

It’s usually not difficult to identify the line between reasonable use of RAJE behaviors, and outright defensiveness. Those prone to consistent demonstrations of RAJE behaviors tend to corrupt trusting environments, elicit defensiveness in others, and cast a pall on team moral with unnecessary drama.

But all is not lost. Here are a few ways to deal with defensive people:

Understand the Motivation: Merited or not, defensiveness stems from a fundamental interpretation of danger. For whatever reason, the defensive person perceives a response, person, or interaction as threatening, despite the intended message or the reality of the situation. They may believe others see them as inadequate, incompetent, or wrong. In a sea of positive feedback, only the negative feedback will stick, regardless of how small or inconsequential it may seem. The first step in addressing this mistaken assessment of danger is to recognize it, and shift your tactics accordingly.

Listen Intently: When faced with a defensive response, the urge to correct someone’s incorrect assessment of a situation is almost reflexive. Resist this urge. Attempting to correct someone, even in the most altruistic spirit, further confirms the defensive person’s perception that you see them as wrong, or unable to accurately interpret facts. Instead, hear them out. Allow them to fully express their feelings. Gather as many facts as you can: their words, tone of voice, body language, and unsaid implications. Paraphrase back to them what you think you heard. This helps the defensive person feel understood, accepted, and hopefully less insecure.

Focus on the Issue: Ensure that any contention remains focused on specific issues, actions, or circumstances. Not the person. Defensiveness stems from deep-rooted personality-based fears. To diffuse personality-based internalizations, avoid suggesting personality-based solutions. Maintain a calm, rational approach to the situation at hand, using neutral language without accusation. Do not try to change the subject, lighten the mood, or console the person. Telling someone to “chill out” will almost always have the reverse effect.

Avoid Negative feedback: Negative feedback is taken extremely personally, and feeds the assessment of danger, triggering more defensive behavior. Instead, respond with clarity and compassion. Focus on reducing emotional threats and communicate that you want to help the person. When you demonstrate a desire to help, and matter-of-factly engage in a discussion on how best to attain a goal or resolution, it often makes a positive impact on an individual’s assessment of a situation.

Manage your Own Defensiveness: Make a conscious choice to be aware of your own emotions and perceptions when dealing with a defensive person. Actively look for personal manifestations of RAJE behaviors. A popular tactic of defensive people is to get others to try to defend or explain their positions – and in doing so, actively try to make you out to be wrong or unable to accurately assess a situation. Don’t give them the ammunition. Never engage in an argument. Do not defend or explain yourself.

Set Boundaries: Preemptively avoid many unwanted defensive situations by making working agreements in advance (or in the middle of a relationship as needed). Agree how you each prefer to receive feedback. Perhaps someone is more open to suggestions made in private than in the moment, in front of a group. Agree to what language and behaviors are simply unacceptable.  Referring to a pre-established agreement rather than an immediate reaction, helps keep the focus off of the individual’s personality and on specific tactics and strategies moving forward.