Dealing with Defensiveness

Managing poor performance can be one of the most difficult responsibilities facing a front-line leader. It takes authentic courage to have those potentially challenging conversations to address lagging performance and get things back on track. Often, employees can and do respond well to this performance management and can come through the conversation optimistic about their future. But, what can a manager do in the cases when they encounter serious defensive reactions from an employee?
We’re all human. People do not always respond well to performance improvement conversations. They may take it as personal criticism, and react emotionally. Or, sometimes people have real personal issues that are affecting their work performance. This is real life.
What can be done? For starters, it is important to stay calm. This is much easier said than done. It’s not in our nature to stay calm if or when things get personal. The fight-of-flight part of your brain does not discriminate. Do your best to anticipate this possibility, so you can prepare. Take some deep breaths, and remember that this person is reacting defensively because of their frustration or embarrassment.
Acknowledge that their emotions are real and have meaning. Does this mean their reasons or logic is good? No. But, all emotions are valid, and should not be just ignored. Acknowledging that they are feeling this way is the empathetic and appropriate reaction. Once they are able to calm down, a more rational conversation can happen.
Listen carefully and curiously. Do your best not to be closed off to what a person is saying, even if it’s emotional or defensive. Then, use active listening skills to pick up on what their saying, respond in real time and clarify or confirm what’s being said. It’s hard not to interrupt or get in to monologue mode. One key is to keep things as specific as possible.  
Finally, try to get the employee to focus on the future, and not the past. Maybe that future includes changes to their role or employment status. Maybe that future has new expectations. If possible, offer them choices or options for what the future looks like going forward. It provides the employee a sense of control and greater ownership going forward.

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