Archive for April 2010

Why is He So Defensive? Understanding the Manager Who Can’t Handle Feedback

April 28, 2010

When Rich’s dad was sober, he was attentive and loving, someone Rich could confide in.  But when he drank, he became angry dad, a dad who would throw Rich’s confidences back in his face.  “No wonder you were the last one picked for the dodge ball game,” he slurs after Rich accidentally knocks over his dad’s briefcase.  “You’re so damn clumsy.”

Lessons learned.  Never show your vulnerabilities.  Don’t trust anyone because, sooner or later, you’ll be sorry.

Ms. Griggs, a burned out third grade teacher, angrily marches back into her noisy class after a brief visit to the restroom. “Who was talking?” she demands.  Rich and a few of his honest classmates stand up while others, including his also-talking best friend, point fingers at their classmates.  The honest few get paddled.

Lesson learned:  Honesty is for suckers.  Point fingers if you have to, but don’t admit blame.

Today, Rich is a manager who goes on the defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-glowing feedback.  If a subordinate expresses a different opinion or questions a task, he refuses to even consider the possibility that their own way of looking at things might be incomplete. As a result, problems in his department often go unaddressed and his employees feel unheard and unappreciated.

Why is she so defensive?

Most of us have had a conversation that started off innocently enough but ended in the heat of battle.  We remind our spouse that it’s garbage day and he “jokingly” tells us to quit nagging.  We think: What? Is he calling me a nag?  Perhaps I need to set the record straight by reacquainting him with the 23 times he’s forgotten to take out the garbage in the past six months.

Notice that these thoughts no longer have to do with taking the garbage out; they are focused on protecting our self-image and defending our self-esteem.  The ante has been upped because our spouse’s remark – no matter how “joking” – feels like a personal attack.  Whenever people feel unsafe in a conversation they either fight (e.g. controlling, labeling, sarcasm, anger) or flee (e.g. silence, avoiding).  Effective communication stops and the discussion shifts away from the issue toward the protection of the self.

What’s Wrong with Rich?

People like Rich have learned to never feel safe.  They are always on the lookout for an emotional attack.  However, while other people get the brunt of Rich’s defensiveness, what Rich is really defending himself against is his own fear.

People don’t get defensive unless they believe that have something to defend.  Chronic defensiveness is almost always based on a fear not only of someone else discovering the insignificant, incompetent or unlikable person the defender believes s/he is hiding, but being forced to re-experience the painful insecurities that drive the defensive behavior.  How much better to shut down the “opposition” that be forced to admit our worst fears about ourselves might be true!

In my next blog, we’ll take a look at how to talk to a highly defensive manager, coworker or employee.  If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.