Dealing with Defensiveness in Relationships

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

If you are a normal human, then you are regularly stuck dealing with defensiveness in relationships, both in yourself and in others. Defensiveness is the normal human reaction to threats to a person’s reputation and/or dignity. We are hardwired to protect ourselves both physically and emotionally and we do that by either fleeing or fighting. We call these “retreating” or “pushing” and both are signs of defensiveness.

When we feel threatened, some of us, at times, get quiet and don’t say anything. Others argue back or provide justification for their actions. Depending on the situation and the person with whom we are interacting, all of us can, for the most part, resort to either defense mechanism.  

The bottom line is that defensiveness, while normal, is also harmful and disruptive because it doesn’t help us think or communicate effectively. As a matter of fact, it causes us to “dumb down” and become cognitively less effective in the moment. 

We call this process “the Defensive Cycle” and it looks like this:

  • It starts when we see or hear someone do or say something.
  • We then make a bad “guess” about why they did it. That bad guess is what is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” because we mistakenly attribute the other person's action to some internal state of theirs that puts them into a bad light (e.g. poor motivation, selfishness, personal satisfaction in insulting or devaluing you in some way).
  • That interpretation then creates a desire in us to defend. 
  • We then do so by either retreating (sulking, withdrawing, looking down, etc) or by pushing back (using harsh words, giving a harsh glare, etc).
  • The other person observes our action. 
  • They interpret our response as offensive.
  • They likewise defend by either retreating or pushing. 


  • We in turn  respond and the cycle goes on until someone “wins” (actually until both lose because there is always a winner and a loser and when we lose we like to get even with the winner which leads to another defensive cycle).
Notice that the defensive cycle begins when one person does or says something and the other person “guesses” bad intent. It is that “guess” that is the problem because we can't determine the true intent unless we communicate. Unfortunately, the bad guess leads to anger or frustration which impedes the very communication we need.

Dealing with Us

We suggest that the key to defusing your defensiveness is to “Learn Your Trigger”. When you become angry or frustrated, let that emotion trigger curiosity rather than blame.

When you become angry or frustrated, think to yourself, “I must be guessing something bad. Why would this person have done or said that?”

Simply stopping and asking yourself this question interrupts the defensive cycle, re-engages your brain and keeps your cognitive skills at a higher level so that you can hold a more effective, less defensive conversation. So that is how you can help control your defensiveness, but what about the other person’s defensiveness?

Dealing with Them

Remember that defensiveness starts with a bad guess, so when the other person becomes defensive it is because they have attributed bad intent to what you have done or said. Your job is to help them understand your true intent which you can do by simply telling them what that intent is.

Use what we call a “Do/Don’t Statement” to accomplish this. Tell them what you do mean and, if necessary, tell them what you don’t mean.

For example

You and your spouse are planning to attend some event and it is time to leave. You are not sure that she is aware of the time since she doesn’t wear a watch, so you say to her…”Do you know what time it is“ and she responds with “I can tell time!”  

To this you could respond with a Do/Don’t statement to clarify what you really mean…”I certainly don’t mean to insult you or make you feel rushed, I just wanted to know if you were aware that it is time to leave.”

Dealing effectively with both your defensiveness and the defensiveness of others will lead to happier, healthier relationships and a lot less “getting even”.

4 Feedback Pitfalls Every Manager Should Avoid

by Mike Allen

Giving feedback to employees is critical for improvement to occur, but effective feedback involves avoiding these four pitfalls.

1.   Avoiding feedback all together or waiting too long to give it
Research has demonstrated that feedback that follows immediately after the action will have the biggest impact on the behavior. Immediate negative feedback will weaken unwanted behavior and immediate positive feedback will strengthen behavior. But don't let not being able to give immediate feedback keep you from giving it at all. Later is still better than not-at-all! 

2.   Over-or under-boarding  

Have you ever seen a manager call someone up in front of a group for some success and go on-and-on about the success, totally embarrassing the recipient of the praise? That is what we call "over-boarding" and it should be avoided because the praise actually becomes punishing and has an effect opposite of that which is desired. On the other hand, failing to provide enough feedback for significant success can lead to reduced motivation in the future. For example, you just saved the company $2 million and the boss, in private says, "Hey, thanks". Make it appropriate to the level of success.

3.   Blaming the employee for a failure  

Blame rarely fixes anything; it usually only de-motivates. Focus on finding the real reason for a failure and fix that. Blame may be quick and satisfying, but it is not effective.

4.   Punishing in public
No one likes being "made an example of" or humiliated in front of their peers. Such humiliation leads to "getting even" and employees can be very creative when getting even ... like work slow-downs, fake injuries, bad-mouthing the boss behind his back, or talking bad about the company to potential customers. Negative feedback should always be given in private. There are instances when a witness will be present, but the witness should not be a coworker of the person receiving feedback.

3 Keys to Building and Maintaining Confidence and Confidentiality

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

“Confidence” is the feeling or belief that you can rely on someone to do what they say they will do, including keeping personal information confidential.  In supervisor and coaching relationships there must be mutual confidence between the parties for mutual trust to be developed.  Here are three keys to developing confidence in a relationship.

1.  Set confidentiality ground rules.  This may seem unnecessary, but just setting a ground rule that all information about each other is to be held in confidence unless there is agreement to the contrary can help create an environment of trust.  This will create an atmosphere where the parties are willing to be vulnerable with each other, making it easier to be helpful to the other person.

2.  Be honest about expectations and abilities.  In supervisor or coaching relationships it is critical that each party understand the capabilities and expectations of the other.  This requires that honest evaluation of what is expected from the other person and what the other person feels competent to deliver is made clear.  Supervisors must have confidence that the employee understands and is able to deliver.  The employee must have confidence that the supervisor is providing complete information about expectations and the resources necessary for success.  Failure in either of these areas can lead to lack of confidence. 

3.  Keep promises.  This is simple; do what you say you will do.  People need to be able to rely on others if trust is going to be maintained.  When you can’t do what you say you will do, then make sure that you make the other person aware at the earliest possible time so that surprises are eliminated.  The ability to rely on the other person to do what they say they will do and to protect that which is told in confidence is critical to the development of mutual trust in a relationship.

All They Care About Is Money!

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

So is money a requirement for motivating employees?  For years we have been asking students in our Performance Management classes to tell us why people leave their jobs, and for years they have told us that most people leave for more money.  

Actually, research has consistently shown that while salary increase is important, it is usually far down the list of reasons why employees decide to leave for another job.  Significantly more people leave because they want more or new challenges, they are not happy with how they are treated by their current supervisor or they believe their contributions are not valued.  Money is obviously important because it allows us to meet our basic needs and achieve some of our life goals, but it may not be as important as other factors that are in the direct control of supervisors.  

Using Extrinsic Motivators Effectively

The best supervisors understand that money is just one of the extrinsic motivators that they have at their disposal and that the way they use these motivators is more important than the motivators themselves.  Because of this, they follow what we call “The Contingency Rule” in the application of all extrinsic motivators.  So what is this rule?

The Contingency Rule:  Tie the extrinsic motivator to performance.  Extrinsic motivators that supervisors have at their disposal include such things as money, praise, job assignments, training opportunities, etc.  Making the receipt of any of these contingent on successful performance is critical to their motivational impact.  For example, it has been well documented that cost of living increases act as a satisfier and not as a motivator because they are not tied to performance.  It could be argued that not receiving an expected cost of living increase could act as a motivator to look for another job, but in this case it would be a de-motivator for improved performance in the current job.  

"Best Bosses" are clear about what they expect from employees, and they are also clear about the relationship between accomplishment of those expectations and extrinsic motivators.  When people know that successful performance leads to increase in pay, praise, desired job assignments, etc, they are much more likely to put out the effort required to receive those things.  Failure to understand these contingencies will only lead to employee confusion, dissatisfaction and lowered motivation.  It might also lead the person to look for another job.

Conflicting goals make room for performance failures

by Ron Ragain, Ph.D.

Most people do not set out to fail.  On the contrary, most of us regularly attempt to succeed; but at times we do fail none-the-less.  The role of a supervisor is to get results through the efforts of other people, so an important question for supervisors is, “Why does a specific performance failure occur?”  There are a lot of reasons - knowledge, skill, motivation, etc. - and key among them is something called “goal conflict”.  

We live in a complex work-world with multiple competing demands.  We must be safe, fast, cheap and valuable all at the same time.  It is humanly impossible to make all of these goals #1 at the same time, so we make cost-benefit tradeoffs and “choose” which objective is the most important at the time given the pressures of the environment/culture that we are in.  I may choose to “hurry” because of time pressure, but in so doing sacrifice safety and quality.  
As a supervisor I need to understand the drivers behind employees’ performance failure before I can adequately help them become successful.  What “tradeoffs” did the employee make that produced the failure?  Did his desire to “please” the supervisor outweigh his calculation of his own skill-level?  Did her perceived pressure to produce outweigh the thought to evaluate hazards associated with the task and take precautionary action?  
Unless we as supervisors take the time to evaluate the conflicting goals that drive employees’ performance, we will be less effective in reducing the opportunity for failure.

Consequence Predictability and Results

by Phillip Ragain

Have you ever worked for someone whose reactions were unpredictable? One day they were giving positive feedback for success and the next day they were dressing you down for the same results? How did/would that make you feel? What impact would that have on your desire to achieve good results? For most of us the lack of predictability would create a reduction in motivation to succeed and show initiative.

Research has shown that lack of predictability of consequences increases stress and that increased stress, beyond a certain point, reduces the ability of individuals to perform. When we know what to expect, we are less stressed and more likely to put out the effort required for success. Although we might not appreciate a “knit-picking” boss, we can live with it (for a while), if we know that it is his/her style and it is predictable. We all prefer working for someone who provides consistent positive feedback for success and consistent input (redirection) on how to be more successful when we fail.  

It is always better to hold people accountable for their results in a predictable and consistent manner. As always, we recommend fair evaluation of results followed by consistent/predictable positive feedback for success and consistent/predictable redirection of actions that have led to failure.  

By the way, parents, this goes for your children, too.  They need to know that they can expect appropriate, consistent and predictable consequences when they succeed and when they fail.  

Unsafe Behavior Is a Downstream Indicator

by Phillip Ragain

At first glance, the suggestion that behavior is a “downstream” indicator may seem ridiculous, because in the world of safety and accident prevention, behavior is almost universally viewed as an “upstream or leading” indicator.  The more unsafe behaviors that are occurring, the more likely you are to have an undesired event and thus an increase in incident rate (downstream or lagging indicator).  This view is the basis for most “behavior based safety” programs.  

Over the past few years, however, there has been a great deal of research in the area of human factors which suggests that there are variables much more upstream than behavior that can help us decrease the chances of an incident.  The human factors approach views an individual’s behavior as a component of a much more complex system which includes contextual factors such as social (supervisory and peer) climate,  organizational climate (rules, values, incentives, etc.), environment climate (weather, equipment, signage, etc.), and regulatory climate (OSHA, BOEMRE, etc.).  Individuals work within these climates, evaluate action based on their interpretation of these climates and then act based on that evaluation.      

Research has shown that individuals, for the most part make rational decisions based on the information that they have at their disposal in the moment.  If an individual “understands” that her boss really rewards speed, then she is more likely to pick up speed even if she is not capable of working at that speed and thus increases the likelihood of having an incident.  While speed of performance is a behavior, it is the result of the person’s knowledge of the demands of the climate and is therefore a downstream indicator.  Evaluating and impacting the climate is thus more upstream and should be the focus of our intervention programs.  When we can impact the decision making process (upstream) we can have a much better chance of creating safe/desired behavior (downstream).