Three Keys to Avoiding Being Defensive

When an employee, or spouse, or even an enemy questions you, how do you respond? Do you tend to get defensive? Do you go on the attack? Do you retreat? How do you respond?

Over the years, whenever I’ve watched leaders experience a negative comment or accusation, I’ve usually had to coach most of them on learning to not be defensive—or to not go on the attack. Both being defensive and going on the attack are poor leadership choices that damage anyone’s standing as a leader and cost them “leadership cash.”

Even worse, they both set terrible models for how others should respond in a similar situation. If you go on the defensive when an employee critiques you, why should you be surprised when they do the same thing when you critique them? Remember, “People (including children) do what people see.”

So, if you’d like to turn that around so that you’re calm, cool and collected when someone critiques or criticizes you, here are three ideas to help you.

1. Make sure you always make sound decisions that reek of integrity

One of my favorite maxims is,

“You should never be afraid of a question. The only reason to be afraid of a question is because you’re afraid of the answer.”

If you know you’ve made a good decision, based on all the data you had at the time, and you did that with full integrity—not cutting any corners, not telling half-truths or outright lies, etc.—then what do you have to be afraid of? Answer: Absolutely nothing!

The only reason to be afraid (and hence the need to be defensive or to go on the attack to deflect attention from the issue at hand) is because you didn’t make a good decision based on operating with full integrity.

So, if you don’t have a commitment to always making sound decisions, based on the data available, and with full integrity, then make that commitment today. If you reek of integrity, there’s never any reason to be afraid.

Part of the cost of being a leader is that “people” will frequently question your decisions and judgment. So what? It happens to all of us. Why? Because “everyone” will never agree with every decision you make. Opinions will differ—and that’s okay.

If someone wants to question you because they have a difference of opinion, that’s fine. Why should that bother you? Differing opinions is why we have different people on teams. But as long as you made a sound decision, based on the data you had at the time, and you made it with full integrity, you have no reason to be defensive. It’s just a difference of opinion.

2. Make sure you don’t confuse your worth and value with what you do

This is a huge one. One of the primary reasons why so many people become defensive when someone else questions them or their judgment is because they’ve tied their decisions/judgments/actions/job with their self worth—and that’s a problem.

Why? Because your worth is not dependent upon what you do. You have infinite worth because of whose image you’ve been made in. When you forget that and tie your worth to what you do, then any critique or question or challenge feels like a threat to who you are—which is why most people respond so poorly when someone questions or critiques them. It’s not the question or the critique that’s the problem. It’s how the person hearing the question or critique processes the question/critique.

For example, let’s say two of your employees come to your office and question a decision you made about a third employee. If you see your worth as a human being tied to the decisions you make as the owner of your business (i.e. I’m worthy as a human being because I started a business five years ago that now has 10 employees and does $2.4M in revenue), then you’ll see their questions as a threat to your worth as a human being—which is a much bigger issue than two of your employees questioning a leadership decision you made to fire another employee.

In other words, if someone is just questioning a decision, there’s no need to be defensive. But if they’re questioning your worth—and you want to continue to feel like you’re a worthy individual (and you’ve tied your worth to your performance as a business leader)—then it’s understandable why you’d want to defend yourself.

So, don’t do that. If you ever find yourself being defensive or going on the attack, may I encourage you to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Have I just turned a question into an attack on my worth and value?”

3. Make sure you choose to be humble

Now, don’t blow by this point. Humility is not about weakness nor about being milquetoast. Humility is about strength. It’s about being confident in who you are and who you’re not. It’s about having a right evaluation of what you’re good at and what you’re not. It’s not about thinking less of yourself, it’s about not taking yourself so seriously.

If you’re prideful and think that every decision you make has to be right/perfect, then you’ll struggle with being defensive and going on the attack when others attack you. But if you’re humble (i.e. you realize you’re a human being who isn’t God and therefore isn’t omniscient) then you’ll have no problem with admitting you made a mistake—if you made one. And if you didn’t, no problem there either.

This is the beauty of choosing to be a humble person, you become unflappable. People know they can’t get under your skin by attacking you—so they give up. At the same time, your people will feel they can question your decisions (when appropriate) because they know you’ll listen and won’t attack them. Why? Because you have nothing at stake.

So if you want to be a better leader, stop being defensive or going on the attack when someone questions you or challenges a decision you made (this works at home as well as at work). Model a leader who’s “presidential.” Be calm, cool and collected. Listen. Reflect back. And be confident.

If you made a good solid decision, based on the data you had at the time, and you made that decision without compromising your integrity, and if you haven’t tied your worth to your work, and if you’ve chosen to be a humble person (not a weak person), then you have nothing to fear. Someone is just voicing a question (or critique or challenge or difference of opinion). Nothing more. Nothing less. And certainly, nothing to get defensive about!

May I encourage you to make these three choices consistently. You just might be surprised at how much they’ll make you a better leader.

To your accelerated success!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!