Saving face: how defensiveness can undermine your leadership

Posted July 12, 2012 in Communication, Latest News & Insights

So, what gets your back up?  Is it when people accuse you of being disorganized? Or suggest that you’re not capable of handling a particular situation?  Or perhaps when your work is criticized?  We all get defensive, but have you ever wondered why you can be sitting in a meeting with a colleague and a comment about your co-presentation gets her blood boiling and bounces off you like Teflon?

Defensiveness is triggered when someone attacks the “face” we are presenting to the world.  We all present a face (or often multiple faces).  You want your direct reports to see you as a firm, friendly and fair boss; but you want your peers to see you as someone who’s fun to hang out with; and you want your boss to see you as their right hand confidante.  You present yourself differently to each group. So, when someone starts to challenge the face you’ve presented, you’re going to want to defend yourself.

Here’s an example:  you want to be seen (and see yourself) as a fair boss, so when your direct report complains that it’s unfair for Suzy in accounting to get first dibbs on vacation time because she doesn’t have much tenure, you may immediately feel the need to defend yourself.

Defensiveness comes in many forms:

Attacking the critic either through direct verbal aggression (Jane… why are you worrying about Suzy’s vacation time when you’re still way behind on your project?) or through sarcasm (Geez, you’re right Jane.  Guess I should have checked with the tenure police before approving that!)

Distorting key information by rationalizing the situation (Well, Suzy has only been here for a while but she’s been working a lot of overtime and I felt that breaking protocol would be o.k. in this situation.) or by compensating for the issue (Jane you’re right.  I totally forgot about that tenure piece.  I’ll tell you what, why don’t you and the rest of the group take next Friday off as a bonus day as way of apology?)

Finally, excuses as to “why” things can’t be done (I’m really sorry Jane, but I can’t make any changes to this at this point since it’s already gone to HR.)  Change can’t to “won’t” in that sentence and you can see “it’s not my fault!”

Once you start down a defensive path, it can start to spiral downwards quickly.   Bosses who get defensive when challenged quickly start to shut down input and ideas.  To get the best out of our people, we need to be able to handle criticisms that may cut a little close to our self-image.

Here are some tips to help stop the defensive spiral:

  1. Seek to understand… take a breath and ask your critic questions to get a better understanding of the issues.  Seek for specifics and, if they’re not offered, guess at the specifics to get a clear understanding of where the person is coming from.  This can help reduce your initial defensiveness and give you a better view of the situation.
  2. Agree with the critic or their perception…this approach allows you to acknowledge things that are true and also avoid any debate over who’s right and who’s wrong.  “Now that you mention it, it wasn’t fair for me to approve Suzy’s vacation without considering tenure.”
  3. Pause and reflect… after a particularly negative interaction where you’ve been defensive, take a few moments to identify what triggered your feelings.  By being aware of your own “hot buttons” you’ll be able to avoid defensive traps in future conversations.

As leaders, we face criticism on a daily basis.  Think about the people with whom you become the most defensive.  What parts of your “presenting self” do you defend the most? What are the typical outcomes from your defensive interactions?  Now, how can you act differently in the future?

Happy leading!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *