How to Manage Someone Who is Really Defensive

August 6, 2018

How to manage somebody who is really defensive about criticism and/or feedback.

The job of any manager is to get the absolute most out of their people.

To achieve that, yes, you should recognize your employees' strengths and build them up. But, you also need to address their weaknesses, so they don’t hold your employees back.

The problem? Some people get really, really defensive when you point out a weakness of theirs. And that makes addressing them difficult.

The solution is not to avoid ever pointing out a criticism and pretending like their weaknesses don’t exist. Instead, in her LinkedIn Learning course Coaching Employees Through Difficult Situations, Instructor Lisa Earle McLeod explains exactly what to do in this situation.

Instructor Lisa McLeod explains how to manage an employee who gets defensive when given feedback.

A 3-Step Strategy for Giving Feedback to a Defensive Employee

The challenge with managing a defensive employee is they don't take feedback well. To get through that, McLeod suggests giving a defensive employee feedback using this three-step process.

    1. Start with a compliment.

And make it a genuine one. This will make the rest of the conversation flow much smoother.

“Starting the conversation with a compliment takes the other person off the defensive and allows them to be a better listener,” McLeod said.

    2. Give an example of what good looks like.

Whatever you are providing feedback on – communication, a sales call, copy, whatever – cite an example of what good looks like in that area.

The ideal situation? You can cite an example the employee did. So, for instance, say the employee wrote strong copy for one acquisition email but poor copy for another. Tell them what you liked about the good email, and how you’d like to see more of that in the not-so-good email.

If that’s not possible, give an outside example. This will give the employee a clear picture of what you are looking for.

    3. End on a positive note.

Call it a compliment sandwich. Start with a compliment, provide the feedback and then do your best to end the conversation on a positive note.

So, end the conversation by thanking them for being so open to coaching. Or, call out a time where they improved in the past, and thank them for that. That’ll make the employee feel better about the talk and increase the chances they'll address your feedback.

“This takes your employee off the defensive and leaves them with a clear action plan to improve – and helps them become more coachable,” McLeod said.

Want to learn more? Watch Lisa Earle McLeod’s full course, Coaching Employees Through Difficult Situations.

Other topics in her LinkedIn Learning course include: