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As a manager, giving feedback is time-honoured tradition of ensuring upward mobility of the company, either in commercial or non-commercial terms.

However, one of the obstacles when giving feedback is defensiveness, even if the comment is genuine.  Some employees do not take genuine feedback lightly, even if it is passed on gently. They launch a soft war against their superiors to cleanse themselves of the mistake they are accused of; they say so and so did something that led them to act in a certain way, over and over. Sometimes such feedback is important, but other times it is not. Even if you are the most patient person in the world, too much of defensiveness can irk you.

Here’s how to deal with defensive employees.


Inform them about the habit

Generally, it is hard for anyone to accept negative information, even when the evidence is as clear as day. Some people do not know that being defensive is their second nature. To some, defensiveness is a response after being belittled in the past and to others, the effect of perfectionism where they are so used to getting things right all the time. Others are generally skeptical and are quick to assume a negative comment from the boss is a personal attack or the first step towards their exit.

Informing the defensive people about their habits can launch the change you wish to see in them. You may also challenge them to assess themselves to find the cause and correct.

If it is too much, maybe it is true

A pattern of defensiveness can highlight an underlying problem in the management or communication style. If the complaints proceed for a while and all point to someone or a missed aspect, then it is important to investigate the truth of the matter. It could be that the person trusted to assign tasks and oversee operations is skimming through details and assuming everyone will fill in the gaps.

Educate about constructive criticism

When people have been in the industry for a while and mastered the ins and outs, and maybe bagged a few awards, then the thought that they can be wrong rarely crosses their mind. They somehow believe they know all there is to know and what they do not must be a recent invention. Correcting such people or even pointing out a small missed highlight can be a challenge; they will most likely give reasons why they are right and you are wrong, or why they were led to act in a certain way.

One easy way of coping with the defensiveness is educating the importance of constructive criticism; that it does not undermine one’s intellectual capabilities but rather highlights the potential areas of improvement, catalyzes personal growth, facilitates intellectual stimulation so they can refine their outlooks and beliefs.

Advocate for mental flexibility

There are people who do not accommodate contrary opinions because they believe that there exists two way of thinking: right and wrong. This is quite common amongst people who have always had the upper hand in (almost) everything; their comments were taken and adopted without opposition. As part of your professional development program, showing that there are more sides of a picture than right and wrong can end this troublesome habit of defensiveness.

Emphasize the essence of team work

When working as a team, as we always do, there is always a possibility of being let down: someone is taking too long with a task and the other is forced to hurry to beat deadlines, someone is providing details in segments rather than as a whole meaning that others has to wait until they have everything to work, etc. Some employees do this intentionally to take credit for a job well done and sabotage their colleagues’ names.

As a manager, it may be hard to get the clear image of the nature of collaboration in teams, but emphasis on collective win more than individual- sometimes- can make your team sober up so they can stop pulling each other down and being at each other’s mercy.

In conclusion

The sting after getting negative feedback affects anyone and everyone. While there is temptation of letting the defensive comments pass, there is also a risk of some walk stalling if too much time is spent on back and forth. Implementing some of the listed tactics can make your feedback giving process easy.