Dealing with defensive personalities - By Richard Dore - Proteus Leadership
1300 219 903

Dealing with defensive personalities

When you’re dealing with someone whose behaviour is obviously problematic, there’s nothing more frustrating than their refusal to see any problem with their behaviour at all.

• People who always think that it is others who need to change
• Colleagues who are always defensive to feedback
• Those who continually blame others for problems, not taking any responsibility

Why do people behave like this?

Psychologists speak of the Negativity Bias which predisposes many people to paying more attention to negative experiences around them rather than being alert to their own behaviour.

Blaming others is also a defense mechanism, which allows people to preserve their own sense of worth, while frustrating others enormously.

There is also the off-chance that they may have a point – that others can do their part to help as well.

Explanations aside, what can we do to influence others to see the need for change with their own behaviour?

Demonstrate understanding for their position

The general rule is that if you want someone to listen to you, you have to listen to them first. Acknowledging and empathising with their perspective, can often help them to be less defensive and get into a more reasonable frame of mind.

Certainly, letting them talk will give you a greater appreciation of needs that are important to them and some possible solutions.

Explain why change from them is needed

People often skip giving explanations, assuming that people already understand, and launch straight into a confrontation.

However, we know from the research that giving explanations enhances the likelihood of compliance. Explanations appear to trigger a pathway in the brain that encourages compliance. Explanations can also foster some empathy or highlight a benefit they care about.

For example, “I need you to keep your voice down and watch the way you speak to me as that helps me to work well with you / I find it hurtful / I am 7 months’ pregnant.” You can take your pick.

Although explanations do not guarantee compliance, it seems a shame that we often assume that people already understand why we are asking for what we are.

Move from blame to solutions

This is a more productive use of your energy than trying to get these individuals to admit some responsibility. However, the solutions they generate will tend to focus more on what others need to do.

Some of these solutions can perhaps be agreed to or used as trades. E.g. “If I am open to what you have to say, will you come and speak with me earlier?” Even very stubborn people find it very hard to resist trades, though you might have to have a number of alternatives up your sleeve. Remember to be creative, being open to exploring a number of solutions, as often people get fixated on the first solution they have thought of. If the person is in a perverse, emotional place, then perhaps it is a good idea to call for a break, suggesting you both give some thought to actions everyone can take to help the situation.

Introduce something new to the environment

Here we are effecting change with those things that are in our control – our own behaviour, the behaviour of those open to change, and the actual environment itself.

It is often very hard for people to continue their own problem behaviour when the behaviour of others has changed around them. Here we are looking for something / anything different, to interrupt the usual pattern and to notice what helps.

“Take a difficult colleague out for a coffee, ask if they are ok, rather than challenging them about their behaviour. There may well be personal reasons contributing.”

You may also find that moving a problem person to a new team or placing a new colleague beside them to work on a project together, can start a different dynamic.

Allow the status quo to become uncomfortable

Sadly, some people only see the need for change when they become more uncomfortable with the status quo.

Follow-up meetings take place.
Their manager gets involved. Options are discussed of either changing their behaviour or going down the performance management path.

Whatever the discomfort, it has to be motivating for the individual concerned.

Here we need to ensure we have exhausted our options for accommodating ourselves to the other person and influencing change in more positive ways.

Even when there is change by this person, often follow-up meetings still need to take place both to reinforce progress and ensure that this person stays on track.

Accept that some people don’t change or lack a capacity for change

Remember that people are complex. Some have a long track record of blaming others, mental health problems, or are high-functioning, but somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Factors such as these can certainly affect their capacity for change. Whatever the cause, this person’s history and our and others’ past attempts to influence change will give you some idea about a person’s capacity for change.

These individuals are often less problematic when they are kept busy. But more so, when they are busy doing those parts of their work that play to their strengths.

It can also help to put our energy more into not being personally offended by their behaviour, if this is possible. The more we can explain their behaviour as being driven by stress or influenced by some medical condition, the less likely we are to take it personally.

There are also times when we need to focus on coping with their behaviour.

If we are in a position to do so, we might take action to find a role that is a better fit for that person – perhaps it is outside of our workplace. Other times, we take action to get ourselves into another role that limits our contact with that person.

Which of the above are a good fit for the person you know, who never sees any problems with their own behaviour?


Republished from the International Institute of Directors and Managers (IIDM) –

Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”