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Defensiveness: one of the greatest inhibitors to true collaboration

Behavioral change specialist Kevin Groen shares actionable steps for dealing with defensiveness in the workplace (and in personal life).

Last updated

18 Aug 2022

Reading time

10 min


There's no way around it: being defensive is part of human nature. Unless you're a visitor from outer space (in which case, let us know!), we're 99.9% sure that you've been defensive towards someone. And it's as likely you've been on the receiving end of a defensive attack, too.

But what does this mean in workplace scenarios?

We talked to Kevin Groen, a behavioral change enthusiast, spoken word artist, and coffee brewing addict, to understand more how nuanced defensiveness can be. Kevin is on a mission to make people feel more alive and workplaces more humane—something we are definitely on board with.

We hope this interview will make you more informed, inspired, and empowered. So let's get started!

What does defensiveness in the workplace look like?  

"Defensiveness is behavioral responses and patterns that we apply when we feel emotionally threatened in some way," explains Kevin. "We apply those behaviors and patterns to avoid discomfort."

In the workplace, that can happen in different contexts. Feedback, for example, is a setting where defensiveness is highly likely. Maybe we're not in a good place, maybe we consider the feedback a threat to our competence and skills—whether we are aware of it or not—maybe we're in denial. "If you haven't developed the awareness and the skill set to deal with feedback, you'll likely respond defensively," tells Kevin. "That's easier than actually sitting with the feedback."

Three common defensive behaviors

Defensiveness can take many shapes. Kevin highlighted three common defensive behaviors to watch out for:

  • Denial: "denial is a common defensiveness mechanism," says Kevin. We've been there: maybe a manager is concerned about our workload and stress level, and asks whether we are OK or if we need help. All good, everything's fine, we might answer. In the meantime, the house is burning.

  • Intellectualization: the human brain is hard-wired to find narratives—but unfortunately, they’re not always true. If we're running late on a project, for example, we might develop a story in our heads: oh, we work in a start-up, things change constantly, and it's hard to keep up. "But that's not true: we just had an issue with prioritization or haven't been vulnerable enough to ask for help on time."

  • Blame: the blame game is a classic—and defensive—move. Once again, we might be diverting from the uncomfortable path of reflecting on our own actions because it's easier to transfer responsibility and accountability to someone else.

Ultimately, what all of these behaviors have in common is that they don't allow us to sit with reality: maybe we're stressed, maybe we need to ask for help. "But that would be uncomfortable because, again, we might have already created a narrative around it. We might think that if we admit we're stressed, we've failed. What would other people think if they were to know that we're kind of losing control over the work? Will they think we're incompetent?" explains Kevin. 

It's a scenario many people can surely relate to. And although there are many reasons why we get defensive in different contexts, it doesn't mean it's always a negative behavior.

Can defensiveness be healthy or helpful?

Kevin actually has two different answers to the question above.

"Defensive behavior is, generally speaking, not a good thing—it disconnects instead of connecting. It can deteriorate trust and stop us from learning—we might even stop growing." Furthermore, defensiveness can become our go-to response whenever we feel threatened, stopping us from becoming more self-aware. Instead of avoiding them, Kevin shows us how we can learn to navigate these challenging situations.

But that is only the surface. 

"We do need disconnection to create healthy, sustainable relationships— because relationships are tested in times of adversity." Reconnecting after disconnecting is how we develop trust and a strong connection with someone. In that sense, if defensiveness is navigated well, it could actually help deepen and strengthen our relationships, whether they are professional or personal ones.

And in the workplace, if we don't work on our relationships, it'll be harder to collaborate.

How do defensive behaviors inhibit collaboration? 

Defensiveness plays a key role in collaboration—but not how we might initially think.

That's because we might assume that great collaboration comes from teams without conflict, which is not necessarily true. In that sense, we picture great collaboration as effortless and magical—a team where the right ideas flow, and no one ever disagrees.

In fact, Google research found exactly the opposite: high-performance teams were the ones that had disagreements and conflicts—but very little defensiveness. Which, ultimately, came down to the concept of psychological safety.

The role of psychological safety and a culture of defensiveness 

Psychological safety relates to trust and empathy in our team and being confident that we won't be embarrassed, rejected, or punished for disagreeing or speaking up. In a psychologically safe environment, taking risks doesn't feel dangerous or intimidating. 

"Giving tough feedback, asking for help, asking questions, disagreeing, calling out discrimination can all feel like taking risks. Whether people do or not correlates to how psychologically safe they feel," he explains. 

In a culture of defensiveness, teams often feel psychologically unsafe—that's how we protect ourselves from discomfort. The conflicts are there, but we don't feel confident in addressing them (denial). We blame each other for failures or disagreements instead of being accountable for eventual mistakes. We lack empathy.

To improve collaboration in the workplace, we have to address defensiveness—more often than not, starting with ourselves.

Am I defensive and don’t even know it? 

Wondering if you were guilty of defensive behavior in the past? The answer is probably yes. Kevin tells us a few things we can do to find out (and act on it): 

  • Educate yourself: "a simple, straightforward YouTube search already gives you plenty of resources. It's possible to self-educate," he says. That is a great first-step in becoming more self-aware and reflective, which is the foundation for changing behavior.

  • Ask a trusted one: sometimes, the easiest way to find out is to ask. "Reach out to a couple of people you trust, in the workplace or outside of work. If they care about you, they'll have no problem sharing examples of how you were defensive in the past," he suggests.  

  • Reflect on your reasons: "we can ask ourselves, what am I trying to achieve with what I'm about to say? Why am I saying this? Why am I doing this?" Kevin recommends. "Defensiveness is a metaphorical shield we put up. What are we trying to protect here?"

  • Identify the narrative: with defensiveness, there's often an underlying narrative. What is it? "Too often, we think that by asking for help, people will assume we're incompetent. That's a narrative," he reminds us. Pause and listen to the voice in your head—it might not be telling you the truth. 

Kevin also recommends asking ourselves the following questions:

  • What am I trying to achieve with this?

  • What am I afraid of?

  • What's the narrative that I am developing?

  • If I were to engage in this situation with generosity, what would that look like?

There are also a few other steps we can take to improve our defensive behavior.

How can I be less defensive? Six insights to consider

Yes, it's possible to be more aware—and consequently, less defensive. In our conversation, Kevin shared six important points to consider. 

Let's look at them one by one:

Identify your types of defensiveness

There are signs of defensiveness. It might be our sweaty palms or racing heart—physical sensations that tell us that we're about to get defensive. "The best we can do—for other people and ourselves—is to learn more about our behavior," says Kevin. 

"There are mental, physical, and emotional signs. Notice them. Sit down and reflect. Reflect on your history. Reflect on your patterns," he explains. Many people don't even realize they're being defensive—simply because they've never paid attention to it. 

While most of us are guilty of that, it's never too late to change.

Call it what it is

Sometimes, naming a feeling is enough to take the edge off it. Acknowledging defensiveness and calling it what it is can be a humbling exercise in vulnerability—which, in turn, helps us develop our empathy, too.

Create a reminder for yourself

It's easy to think of what we'd like our ideal behavior to be when we're not stressed and emotionally triggered. And for that, Kevin suggests making yourself a reminder of what the ideal behavior is.

"If you've realized that your defensive behavior is intellectualizing, that is, emphasizing and explaining yourself ten times, put a post-it next to your laptop screen: shut up. Whatever works for you; it could be a picture; it could be a statement. We need the reminder of our ideal behavior in the heat of the moment, not in the morning when nothing is going on," he explains. 

Become better at apologizing

"Learn how to become good at apologizing," says Kevin. He suggests studying Dr. Harriet Lerner's nine essential ingredients of a true apology, described in her book Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts

Pro tip: a good apology doesn't include the word "but." It also should focus on our actions, not the other person's response. 

Practice, practice, practice

Once we've realized what our defensive behaviors are, it's time to practice: again and again. "If you're prepared, it'll be a bit easier, but not necessarily easy," he says. Practising our new response; however, will strengthen how we deal with defensiveness.

Pro tip: no idea what your desired behavior could be? Reflect on what could be a more generous, non-defensive response. 

Give yourself time

"It's crucial to understand that defensiveness often is a very instinctive, reactive, fast-paced response." Kevin's reminder is: give yourself time and slow down. Take some time to get back to a more reflective mode if you have to. 

Being more self-aware about our own defensive behavior is likely to increase our perception of defensiveness in others. Kevin shared a few tips on how to address that situation in a constructive way.

How can I address defensive behaviors? 

Defensiveness is a very instinctive response, which means there's not much time for reflection. Keep that in mind when addressing defensive behaviors—the ideal scenario is to make the person go from a fast-paced response to a more reflective state of mind.

"There are a few ways of doing that", says Kevin. "One of them is simply to pause, disengage, and re-engage later. There are moments where we're just incapable of listening, and then it's better just to say, let's take a break." That's a great tip in feedback scenarios, especially if we notice that the other person—or ourselves—is having an emotional response. Let it quiet down when that's the case and return to it later. 

"Effective disengagement is important—it doesn't mean never having that difficult conversation. Effective disengagement means pausing, explaining why, and suggesting and agreeing on a time to come back. And then coming back to it," he teaches. 

Sometimes, that's not possible. But that doesn't mean that defensiveness needs to escalate.

"The second solution—frequently a more helpful technique—is asking a personal question. Preferably something difficult to answer. For example, what are you worried about? What are you afraid of? Where does your response come from? What are you trying to protect here?"  Kevin says that if the other person is willing to accept your invitation to have a deeper conversation, then you have a breakthrough.

Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen—but it leads to a critical understanding point: when someone gets defensive, the main topic has changed. 

"If you want to give me feedback and I get defensive for whatever reason, then you can't keep pushing that feedback onto me. I'll keep rejecting it," he says. "Feedback is off the table. Now, my defensiveness is the current issue that needs to be navigated—as long as I'm defensive, I am unreceptive to the feedback."

In that sense, defensiveness can be addressed by improving the greater picture (that is, psychological safety in the workplace) and in specific contexts (by addressing it one-on-one).

Conclusion: we're probably more defensive than we think

"Maybe a good reminder for people is that we're probably underestimating the problem of defensiveness," summarizes Kevin. It happens more often than we think, and being aware of what triggers our defensiveness—and the shapes it might take—are the first actionable steps to becoming more empathetic and supportive collaborators in the workplace (and in life).

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