Are you too defensive? Confident or not, are you known to be too protective of your own ideas and them having to prevail? Do other viewpoints threaten you?
Being too Defensive (Audio)
What are you better known for: being too defensive or are you seen as more open minded? Are you more protective of your own or can you also accept other viewpoints? Are you able to listen to other perspectives or do you feel more inclined to relate everything back to “what is right for you”? How defensive are you and when does that manifest most?
Is being defensive one of your labels?
It can be quite frustrating when we have to deal with someone who is considered “overly defensive” or more often than not comes across that way, can’t it? Particularly if they are in leadership positions and use their rank to “enforce” certain positions. In my early corporate years as a trainee manager in Germany I remember the cynical remark often made by younger people of our less than flexible managers that: “when you walk into the boss’ office, you still have your own opinion, however by the time you’ve left his office you usually have to have theirs”. And they were so good at defending their own views, weren’t they? Those of you a little older can probably still remember and relate, right?
So if we lament about defensiveness in the context of leadership, then unfortunately it often comes up in conjunction with either weak personalities who “hide behind their rank”, or conversely with personalities that are overly strong and dislike being challenged. (Do you notice that both perspectives around defensiveness are quite negative?)
Both are often quite difficult for younger or more junior people to figure out or to deal with. Much political savvy combined with the necessary diplomacy is required to make such leaders aware of those traits, let alone challenge them and get them to do something about that.
We have all heard (and probably experienced) the younger generations, like the “Gen Y’s” that “vote with their feet” rather than tolerate such leadership.
I have coached a number of professionals in how to best go about making a working relationship with such leaders work better (for both parties), however today I’d like to discuss this from the perspective of what the leader who is afflicted by such behaviour can do about it.
Being too defensive
There is a fine line between protecting a position you need to protect to being defensive, isn’t there? We are all driven by different agenda’s, by KPI’s and by incentives, share options etc which in turn are all driven by the result we achieve. So protecting a position is normal business. But there is a difference between leading resources to an outcome and being defensive.
Being defensive is a style of behaviour. It is an attitude. One dead give-away is that overly defensive people often don’t listen. They are probably also not overly driven by “win-win” in their outlook, but probably rather “I win – you lose”, which are often fostered by defensive thinking and defensive behaviour. Many defensive people don’t appreciate how having heard or listened to another person’s view can enrich their own position with their additional perspectives.
Most defensive people aren’t actually aware of their defensiveness ”being a problem”. It is often a typical personality related behaviour that plays out unconsciously. In that context it can also be indicative of masking self perceived inadequacies that can still emanate from our conditioning. That might manifest from lacking self confidence or an overly present need for significance. It is in this space of “undoing decades of conditioning” that I have helped many of my clients achieve their biggest breakthroughs, where they have unlearned “bad” habits and replaced them with “good” or certainly more supportive and sustaining habits attitudes and behaviours.
So why do we want to remove defensive behaviour? In my experience it is because it influences the reaction and behaviour of those around us, and it can get in the way of some great solutions or outcomes.
Digging in versus “what if…”
I have learned that if you want your people to “dig in” and stick to their guns, just be defensive. That way most people will be more closed and protective of their respective positions and in my experience also more prone to nitpicking.
If you want more constructive engagement, why not try trusting in yourself and bring an open mind to the table, wondering what the others can bring to the table and what you might learn. I have learned that people around you will get more motivated by possibility thinking rather than constrained by scarcity of thinking or protective or defensive leadership behaviour.
I had a CEO client of mine take the trouble to call me all the way in Germany this week to share with me how he had made some of the adjustments and how he had tried some of the techniques he and I had discussed in a Board meeting he had just finished running. He said it was “the best and most constructive meeting he had led in that organization” and was inspired by the positive and constructive engagement of his Board members compared to most past meetings. I am about to share some of those techniques with you below.
Having to know it all
Leaders often feel that they need to be seen to know everything; that their people always look to them for all the answers. They often (unconsciously) feel that they will look weak if they don’t know something or perhaps don’t have a solution towards something. This can be just as valid in front of customers as it can in front of staff or peers.
I know that this was a major breakthrough for me personally. It may well have been a cultural thing too, but I always felt pressured to have to know everything, particularly in the boss’ office or in front of the Board. It took a coach to make me aware of this and to teach me Letting Go. I’ve done that and so I know that it can be taught and can be learned, if you are willing to learn that.
So how do you prevent being overly defensive?
Awareness. Learning to recognize when you are, and when you are not, and being curious about the difference.And when you do notice your using that behaviour, why not use the palm touching your nose technique I described in my earlier blog Getting Started?
Asking someone you trust to point out your defensive behaviour to you when it occurs (one on one, of course). I’ve learned that it is easier to deal with a real example to which you can then intellectually explore alternatives or better responses to, and then use that as an example or even a metaphor to be leveraged across other situations when they arise.
The learning leader and the learning organization
One of the first things I needed to internalize was that it is OK to not know something. In fact, I learned that the perception of having to know everything or having to have an answer to everything prevented me from learning new things. I learned to “become curious” and to wonder about many things. I learned to wonder how “John” (who was acknowledged to be good at what I was struggling with) might do in the situation I found myself in, and how I could emulate that.
I learned that with the right attitude that allows others to bring forward their solutions and then only adding mine opened the door to engagement and constructive conversation that ended with the choice of the best solution(s), and not the personal defense of just one (my one).
This is also the foundation of a learning organization. Are people encouraged to be curious and to “have a go”? The acid test is when they do and get it wrong. Will they be punished for getting it wrong, or will they be encouraged for “having a go” and allowing the mistake to bring the organization one step closer to another advantage over its competitors?
The old German saying: “der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf”, which loosely translates into “the fish smells from the head” suggests this learning organization attitude starts with the boss’ attitude towards this. And so I have worked with a number of “bosses” to help them learn how to let this “having to know it all” go.
If you are a leader, may I ask you to do a quick check-in with yourself right now and rate yourself on this?
Listening instead of feeling compelled to speak
And so one of the next steps is also to become aware of how much “telling” we use in our communications and how much “asking” we practice. Strong leaders are known to prefer telling. It can be quite a challenge to transition that style into asking more questions to guide the other party to their preferred view, rather than to “tell them”. I wrote about this in my blog Are you listening?. People don’t like to be told. They want to contribute; to be part of the solution and have played a part in the results. Telling prevents that. Asking them for their insights motivates and engages them. But then we need to listen to what they have to say…. and also be willing to take it on board. If we ask and even listen, but then ignore their views, they won’t engage. Why should they?
We can’t hear other perspectives if we aren’t listening. Most professionals and leaders think our value proposition is our skill or experience or knowledge. Most of us are so busy positioning ourselves or wanting to show our clients how much we know and how good a solution we can develop for them that we come across as not interested in them or their message or their needs because we aren’t listening; and so we might miss their message altogether. I believe as professionals we need to earn the right to provide our insights and solutions when we have first completely listened to our customer to outline what they want and what they feel. That entails taking our eyes off ourselves and rather putting them on those we serve or those we lead and then guide them to the desired outcome.
Clients and staff want to be heard, to get something off their chest or get us to hear something we need to hear. And what do many of us do? We interrupt them with our ideas based on what we think they are going to say long before they have finished saying it. Guilty?
So where do you position yourself on what we have discussed so far? Do you fall more into the defensive category or are you already further down the track towards a more open and engaging style of leadership and communication?
Do you think that you can develop an awareness around your attitude and your style and noticing how you act and react towards certain situations? And with that awareness do you think you can adjust your style for your benefit, for that of those you lead or work with or serve and for that of your organization? So that you experience the same outcome as my CEO client did?
Do you think it will be a worthwhile exercise; that The Price and the Prize will make it worthwhile? And if you think you could or you think I Should but aren’t sure whether or how you can, why not engage a coach to guide you through this important transition?
What if you could?