How to Deal With Defensive Employee Behavior

by Josalin Mitchell; Updated September 26, 2017
Businessman throwing away report into trash

Dealing with defensive employee behavior might actually improve the quality of work for well-behaved employees as well as other employees. The following techniques can be used with an employee who is acting defensive. But even though some people may be able to handle stress better than others, that does not mean they do not still feel defensive when they are criticized. Improve employee-manager relations by communicating openly, staying positive, respecting employees and giving them room to grow.

Step 1

Address the defensive behavior when it happens. Don't wait until an hour or two later or schedule a special meeting to talk about it. Odds are, this will only make things worse. The employee is being defensive because he feels insulted and criticized. Giving him time to stew about the confrontation will only give him more time to justify his attitude before you have a chance to talk about it with him.

Step 2

Share how the defensive behavior affects you as the manager. For instance, it might be helpful to say something along the lines of, "I know it's hard to hear critical things, but it is just as hard for me to give criticism. Especially when I feel misinterpreted. I really do not want to hurt your feelings." Use this open admission as a first step to open communication with the employees and an attitude of solidarity, rather than divisiveness.

Step 3

Redefine the managerial definition of "constructive criticism" at the workplace. According to "Psychology Today" magazine experts, what is often called constructive criticism is usually phrased in the negative. For instance, it might be helpful on the surface level to tell an employee to "stop wasting time." But it still sounds negative.

Step 4

Use positive language, and focus on ways to solve problems, not the problems themselves. Remember, defensiveness is the brain's way of defending itself against attack. It is a survival mechanism built into the brain, according to "Psychology Today" magazine experts. But there are some ways around the brain's reaction to criticism. In short, look on the bright side.

Step 5

Get employees involved. Initiate a dialogue with the employee that allows her to think of her own ways to improve her performance. Then ask employees to make a list of improvement goals for themselves individually. According to "Psychology Today," the best way to change a behavior is to focus on the changing, not what needs to be changed.

Allow the employee to evaluate her own performance based on the goals she made for herself. Allowing the employee to assess her own performance, along with using a positive attitude, can greatly decrease the defensive behavior. Someone who is defensive about criticism will likely not be if she is allowed to critique herself.

About the Author

Josalin Mitchell began her writing career in 2009. She has written web content as well as grants, training manuals, reports and brochures for nonprofit agencies. Mitchell has a Bachelor of Arts in English and women's studies and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching in English education.

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images