Jane, the new secretary was recently put in charge of ordering all the yearly office supplies for her 40-person team. Many people ordered the same items, yet rather than purchase the items in bulk on one order, Jane placed 40 individuals orders for the supplies as the requests came in. This caused a number of problems. But, Jane had a reputation of being someone you could only compliment and never criticize – lest she become defensive. How can you fix problems facing your team when you have a key player who will not listen with an open heart?
We’ve all been there – everyone in the office notices the elephant in the room – but no one wants to be the first to mention it. Why? Because it involves a person who has defensiveness as their default mode of thinking. Rather than thanking others for their insights, a defensive person sees receiving feedback as a sign of weakness or error. This perception makes them feel that defending their actions is the first priority.
The secret to handling defensive coworkers lies in understanding their insecurities. But first, we must examine the negative impact of their insecurities on the team, so we can come to grips with why handling defensive coworkers is important.
- First to be impacted is team morale. The team grumbled behind Jane’s back because the orders were coming in at different times and Jane was mixing up orders.
- The next impact was productivity. They also resented Jane spending a lot of their time confirming what they’d ordered.
- Finally, there’s the budget impact. The team was also unhappy that they didn’t get all the supplies they wanted because the supply budget didn’t go as far as it had in the past due to Jane not taking advantage of buying-in-bulk discounts.
Yet, there were individuals on Jane’s team who wanted to help, not just criticize her. However, when a colleague offered to show Jane how to create a simple order request, tracking and placement system to fix this issue for next year, Jane defensively snapped, “I already have a lot on my plate and I don’t want to spend anymore time on ordering supplies. It’s done for the year so let’s just leave it at that!”
Here are a few tips to help if you’re ever in a situation at work, where you suspect a team member might become defensive:
- Recognize that emotions are part of the equation. It’s not your job to know all the challenges your team mates have been through in life that may make them defensive. But, the emotionally intelligent thing to do is at least be aware of that they play a role in workplace behavior. Speak in ways that disarm negative emotions and show you value the person. For example, “Jane, I know you’re busy. That’s why I wanted to help take a load off your shoulder with these new suggestions. Besides I know appraisal time is coming around and it will make you look great if you save the department some time and money. But in the end I want you to do what’s easiest for you. You’re good at what you do and your hard work is very much appreciated. Let me know if you change your mind and I’ll make the time to come help you.
- Come prepared to the team meeting with a situation (problem) outline, impact and a tight, clear solution to the issue along with a rationale. Present your COMPLETE suggestion all-at-once during open forum time of the meeting. Why have all your words ready to go for the team discussion? Because often with defensive people, once you give them the floor to comment on your suggestion, you will likely not get it back without seeming pushy or as if you’re attacking the person. It’s better to get all the facts out first. It may save everyone from emotional decision-making later. Also, being solution-focused sets the tone of the conversation to be pro-positive outcome, rather than anti-defensive person.
- Back up and let your supervisor know during your one-on-one time if the problems persist. Don’t keep pressing to help someone who clearly doesn’t want unsolicited advice. Some individuals don’t take help or constructive criticism well from colleagues or subordinates, it has to come from their boss – so go there or to your boss first if you don’t share one. Don’t make the conversation too heavy with the boss. Rather, touch on the subject by suggesting the changes and how they might benefit the team. Then let the supervisor be responsible for deciding if it’s a good idea and then telling the defensive person to change and how. If you are the boss and you really believe making the suggested change is best for everyone, simply present it to the defensive person as a direct request from you the boss. Focus on the positive benefits of the change and how happy you are to have them handling the new initiative. Offer to hear any suggestions or concerns they might have about their assignment and be flexible where appropriate. But make sure they understand what aspects of the new orders are non-negotiable and how their compliance ties back to their performance appraisal – in a non-threatening manner of course.
Hopefully, this tips will be useful to you as even simple conversations can quickly become adversarial in the minds of individuals who tend to be defensive. When valid suggestions and constructive criticism are deflected as unhelpful, irrelevant or worse, following the above outlines over time, can help you gain the respect and trust of defensive individuals so they become less and less defensive toward you.