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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Mar 5, 2021


This week we explore three keys to dealing with defensiveness.



Hello and welcome to episode 108 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore three keys to dealing with defensiveness.

I am sure, like me, that you have needed to work with a defensive person before. Perhaps they just don’t want to hear some feedback that is being provided. Or they quickly blame others when something goes wrong. Maybe they are resistant to new initiatives and changes. All of this defensiveness can make a leader either escalate things or just try to ignore the person.

The most important thing to appreciate is that defensiveness is functional. It serves a purpose. When we have done something wrong, defensiveness is an effort to minimise the perceived harm to ourselves and others. How does that work? Well, let’s say you come to me with a problem that I have caused. I might defensively respond that it is no big deal. That’s because I genuinely hope that it is no big deal. I’m even trying to convince myself that it’s no big deal. So I argue back, resist accepting feedback, misrepresent what happened, or even misremember what happened. That’s right - we can be so defensive that we actually change our memories of the event to protect ourselves. While those responses may protect me in the short term, it doesn’t change that what I have done may indeed be a big deal.

Research demonstrates that defensiveness has a broad range of negative impacts. Team unity and collaboration suffer. The defensive individual’s connection with the workplace suffers. A key part of psychological safety is feeling you belong. The defensive individual reduces that sense of belonging through their actions. In addition, when faced with someone who has done something wrong, we tend to push them to one side and to exclude them. This makes the person even more defensive and takes us even further away from a resolution and progress.

Researchers Wenzel, Woodyatt and McLean found that defensiveness is strengthened by negative social responses. Our natural reactions to the defensive person makes the situation even worse. We enter a cycle of increased defensiveness. But thankfully their research also indicates three keys for dealing with defensiveness:

  1. Help people to belong. As people feel more respected, valued and secure in the group, their defensiveness tends to fall away. After all, you don’t need to be defensive if you know that you will still be accepted and supported even if you make a mistake. You can value the person even if you disagree with their opinions or actions.

  2. Normalise apologies. Saying ‘sorry’ is not a sign of weakness, rather it shows a strength of character to admit when you’re wrong and apologise for the impact on others.

  3. Talk about values. Wenzel and colleagues found that having people share their values reduced defensiveness. If I value honesty and openness, reminding myself of those values will make me less defensive.

Try these three approaches out this week to reduce the level of defensiveness amongst those in your team. As always, details of the research referenced in this podcast is in the show notes, and a big thanks to Lauren Staveley who did the research on this one.

Now for a quick moment of celebration. The Leadership Today Podcast has just passed through 100,000 downloads. When I kicked this podcast off in July 2018 I had no idea the global reach and impact it would have on so many people. And so, can I ask you to do me a favour? This week, please tell three colleagues or friends about the podcast and help them to track it down. And, for bonus points, take a minute to provide a rating and review wherever you download this podcast. That all helps to spread the word. Have a great week.



Michael Wenzel, Lydia Woodyatt, Ben McLean. The effects of moral/social identity threats and affirmations on psychological defensiveness following wrongdoingBritish Journal of Social Psychology, 2020; 59 (4): 1062 DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12378