HR & Staffing

Understanding and Diffusing Workplace Defensiveness

Evan Goodman
Written by Evan Goodman

It’s time for your annual performance review. You want your manager to praise your hard work but instead they point out areas for improvement. It’s uncomfortable but you know they are right. Your immediate instinct may be to think of excuses or shift the blame to someone else.

It is human to err and get defensive. People can feel irritated, reply with sarcasm, or retreat into silence when faced with criticism of any kind at the workplace.  This is an unconscious strategy that humans use to protect themselves against emotional distress.

Typical defensive responses

The Cambridge dictionary defines defensiveness as the speech or behaviour of a person who is eager to avoid being criticised. This mechanism is armour to keep us comfortable.

Recognising the actual defence mechanisms is challenging, even if we are aware that we are being defensive. Defensiveness is a behaviour that we are aware of while defence mechanisms refer to habits that we use instinctively without realising, We have learned these defence mechanisms to protect us from painful thoughts and emotions. Typical defensive responses include:

  • Blaming others
  • Attributing outcomes to external factors
  • Distancing ourselves from our mistakes
  • Obsessive thinking
  • Shouting and screaming
  • Ignoring the situation or conversation
  • Denial or refusal to accept the reality

Why is defensiveness bad?

Defensiveness causes workplace collaboration to break down. For example, people in a team portray others as poor performers while showcasing themselves as superior or the best within the team or business. People may avoid talking about their weaknesses or deny they even exist because they are scared of revealing their weaknesses and impacting their performance ratings. Others want to indulge in scapegoating or blame the system without a valid reason.

According to Jim Tamm, former Judge and author of Radical Collaboration, defensiveness reduces effective performance at work. Defensiveness leads to rigid thinking. The person puts more energy towards  self-preservation as and less energy to problem-solving. Managers, bosses and executives can easily fall prey to rigid thinking. Defending against perceived attacks is like shadow-boxing. It’s a waste of energy that could be channelled into problem-solving instead.

Tamm explains that defensiveness protects people from three kinds of fear. Defensiveness cannot protect you against other people’s behaviour.  Adopt healthy coping mechanisms to avoid damage to your business and business relationships.

Diffusing defensiveness with healthy coping mechanisms

Self-awareness: The first step is to recognise the signs of defensiveness. Listen to your body. Do you feel hot and cold, have a racing heart, are hyperventilating or sweating? Sudden confusion, retreating into silence, blaming, feeling victimised, getting into all or nothing mode,  and trivialising are the other internal signs that you need to heed. Once you learn to recognise these signs, you can hit the pause button before the damage is done.

Reflect on your go-to reactions when faced with conflicts or minor tiffs at work. If you are unable to identify your patterns, get feedback from colleagues, friends or family.

Slow down and take deep breaths: Business psychiatrist Mark Goulston recommends using a three strikes approach to tackling defensiveness at the workplace.

When someone says something at the workplace that makes you defensive:

  • Strike 1 – Acknowledge the first thing that comes to your mind and avoid saying it. Take a deep breath instead. The first thing you are likely to say is something defensive.
  •  Strike 2 – Avoid saying the second thing that comes to your mind and again, take a second-deep breath.  The second thing you will probably want to do is retaliate in response to the perceived attack, which will only escalate matters.
  • Strike 3 – Be conscious of the third thing you are likely to say and refrain from saying that.  Once you get beyond defending and retaliating, you can construct a sensible response.

Stop negative self-talk

Recognising and acknowledging the signs of defensiveness is crucial to be able to take the right action and letting go of those mechanisms.  Avoid negative self-talk and practice self-forgiveness and compassion. Own up to your mistakes without shame or guilt. Self-compassion involves mindfulness. Don’t judge yourself.

Take action and let go

Once you’ve identified your go-to defense mechanisms, come up with a plan to deal with the,. If you typically withdraw into silence, try asking questions to work through your concerns.

This will help you steer clear of detrimental responses and re-evaluate the situation or criticism from a better perspective. Practice better responses until they become your go-to actions. It is important to remember that developing good habits takes time, patience and perseverance.

Put your best foot forward

Criticism can feel very threatening and even dangerous. Sometimes we misinterpret a peaceful situation as dangerous.. If you want to feel safe, don’t give in to your first or second impulse to defend or retaliate.  This kills workplace collaboration and progress. Healthier coping skills are self-awareness, self-compassion and problem-solving. These skills will help you put your best foot forward and come up with better solutions for your business issues.


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About the author

Evan Goodman

Evan Goodman

Over the past 30 years, Evan Goodman | Business Coach has founded numerous ‘start-ups’, built them into successful businesses and gone on to sell them. He has experienced and overcome most of the common challenges faced by business owners and leaders and understands the pressure and stresses that running a business can cause.

He also recognises the value and importance of getting sound advice and support when faced by these common challenges and of being prepared to openly discuss issues with a coach or mentor.

Since building up his last business into a national company, and selling it in 2009, Evan focusses on coaching SME business owners on how to become business leaders. He has a Masters of Business Coaching degree UOW; creating a unique blend of experience, expertise and coaching best practice for his clients.

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