How to Deal With Defensive Employee Behavior

Dealing with defensive behavior in the workplace is never easy. People don’t like being criticized and defensive employees tend to not view constructive suggestions as actual helpful advice. Instead, they perceive it as a full-fledged attack, triggering their fight-or-flight response.

Some people deal with stress better than others, and whether you’re a boss managing your employees or an employee dealing with defensive coworkers, there are certain ways to approach communication that will yield positive results. Improve employee-manager relations by communicating openly, staying positive, respecting defensive employees and giving them room to grow.

Try The Sandwiching Technique

Defensive behavior in the workplace usually comes from a place of insecurity. If your employee or coworker doesn’t respond well to constructive criticism, you should try padding that criticism between two compliments. This softens the blow.

For example, you’re an art director working with a defensive designer whose font choice for a website design doesn’t fit the brand. Try approaching the subject like this:

  • Compliment the designer on the website’s color palette.
  • Softly bring up the font criticism.
  • Finish out with a compliment about something like the text placement.

This helps build a positive feedback loop, where it comes across that you generally like the designer’s work, but it’s not yet finished.

Address Defensive Employees Head On

Dealing with defensive coworkers or employees doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. If padding your feedback with compliments isn’t effective, it’s important to address the defensive attitude head-on. Start by pulling the defensive employee aside for a meaningful — but private — conversation. Gently point out when you’ve noticed the behavior, but don’t frame it as an attack or the conversation won't be productive. It will only make the situation worse.

Instead, try phrasing everything gently. For example, say something like, “I’ve noticed when I give feedback, you sometimes seem upset and point out why you think the feedback is unnecessary. It makes it hard to talk openly with you about our work and explore new ways of succeeding. I know that feedback is sometimes difficult to hear, especially when you’re so close to a project, but it’s important that we can have these kinds of conversations.”

Leave the Table Open for Suggestions

After you address defensive behavior in the workplace, you don’t want to have the employee feel like they’re no longer able to express their opinions and ideas. Make sure you emphasize that they're free to share when and why they have a different point of view, but that kind of conversation has to go both ways. Essentially, you want to encourage a collaborative environment rather than having the person shut down your feedback immediately.

Lead With Praise and Reassurance

Defensive employees need reassurance. The heart of a defensive coworker's behavior is really about insecurity and ego. To combat it, make your employees feel secure. Tell them your feedback doesn’t mean they’re failing and that you just want to see them reach their full potential.

Remember, it’s important to keep your feedback genuine. It won’t serve your business if you’re rubbing the ego of a poorly performing employee. If you don’t think they’re doing a good job, you need to be honest. Say something like, “These are serious issues, but I believe we can overcome them together. I'm here to help.”

Don't Personally Attack. Instead, Offer Solutions.

If you’re dealing with defensive coworkers, it’s important to at least consider there might be a real reason they’re being defensive. Perhaps your criticizing is getting a little personal. Avoid criticizing things like personality. For example, never outright say, “You have a negative attitude.” Criticism should be constructive. Instead, try saying something like, “When you described [difficult problem the team’s trying to solve] in the last meeting, a lot of us felt discouraged. It would be more effective to inspire each other during this difficult process.”

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About the Author

Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.