Help! How Do I Deal with a Defensive Coworker?

Is there anything worse than a chronically defensive coworker? They argue, don’t hear what you’re saying, and sometimes even lash out – so most people end up avoiding them entirely. That’s not a good solution though, because it means problems go unaddressed and people around them feel like they can’t get their voices heard.

But there’s a secret to defusing defensiveness. It might not be your first instinct, and you might not be thrilled with what it takes, but it will work.

Start by understanding that people who get defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-positive feedback react that way because they perceive the feedback as much bigger than it is. For instance, if you say, “I don’t love the way the intro to the report reads,” they hear, “This report is awful, and you’re bad at your job.” Or if you say, “I’d like to communicate better,” they hear, “You never pay attention to anything I say. What’s wrong with you?” In other words, they experience your feedback as an attack, even though it’s not meant that way.

So the key to working around this is to find a way to make the person feel safe. That means finding ways to signal that things are fine overall and that the problems aren’t earth-shattering ones. If you establish a basic sense of safety, the person won’t feel they have to defend themselves and can instead hear what you’re saying.

Let’s say that want to talk to your defensive manager about ways you could work together better. If you just launch into your suggestions, she’s likely to go on the defensive and even criticize you to ward you off. Not only won’t you get heard, but your attempt to talk will just further strain the relationship. So instead, start by telling her that you like working with her. Even share some of the reasons, if you can. Now that she’s feeling safe in the relationship overall, tell her that you hoped you could talk about some small things that you think will help you do a better job.

Remember, too, that defensive people often expect others to react the way they do. So a defensive manager giving you feedback may be braced for warfare, but you can change the dynamic by using responses that emphasize your openness to the feedback. Saying something like, “I’m really glad you’re telling me this. I didn’t realize that this has been an issue, and I’m grateful to know” can dramatically change the nature of the interaction.

In other words, make it impossible for the person to experience your conversations as adversarial. If they feel safe, even the most defensive people can stay calm, listen, and even become collaborative problem solvers.

Now, you might argue that this is a lot to do to accommodate someone who’s not in the right. And it is! But if you want to have a good relationship with the person, get your voice heard, and get things done, this approach is the path there.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Heather_smith7

    so a little bit of sucking up basically. I agree this would probably work but it is so hard to swallow because their negative attitude and defensiveness are their issue and yet! It makes YOUR work-life (and home life if you take the issue home) difficult. I will try to see the bigger picture of making the relationship work but this is a tough one . 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    It IS tough!  Basically, you’ve got to decide if it’s worth it to you to go through these steps in exchange for being able to work effectively with the person or not. You might decide it’s not — but it’s good to know your options!

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    Heather_smith7 Reply:

     I think in the past (with this person) I’ve tried this but maybe halfheartedly so it didn’t completely work and they got defensive again and then I just got annoyed again haha!
    I’m hoping they resign my workplace because they are completely unhappy here and it would be best for everyone if they quit. Until then I’ll try my best to suck it up and provide positive reinforcement to diffuse the defensiveness. Thanks Allison!

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    Badger_doc Reply:

    So what do you do if the person is super defensive AND sucks at their job?  I have an extremely defensive co-worker who flies off the handle any time someone confronts poor behavior/work.  Additionally, if he thinks he is being the least bit mistreated or left out of something, he’s on the email for hours writing to HR or the head of our department about how he feels slighted.  This, of course, cuts into his work time–on top of the fact that he already cannot prioritize his time and meet deadlines. 

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    Adam V Reply:

    At that point, their supervisor should sit the employee down and say “I notice you’ve missed a couple of deadlines recently, and your work hasn’t been as high quality as we’ve come to expect. You need to know that this behavior is very visible beyond our group, and that it must be rectified shortly or we’ll have to let you go.”

    Be very specific about what’s *unacceptable* and skip over what’s simply *annoying* (at least until it reaches the point that the HR manager is unable to get their own job done because of all the emails).

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Yep, as Adam said, at that point you’ve got a bad manager who isn’t doing her job.

    Soni Pitts Reply:

     It’s not sucking up if it’s true. Just find some way to make them safe that doesn’t require lying or diminishing your integrity. If nothing else, focus on something they value, if you can’t think of anything about them you like. For example, why not lead with something like, “I realize how important productivity is to you, and I understand the value you place on attention to detail. Just so we’re on the same page, I’ve noticed a bottle-neck in productivity that I think you can help us solve…”

    Sucking up is fake and hypocritical. Making someone else feel safe so you can do your own job without leaving their office with bite marks on your butt is just good people skills.

    [Reply]

    Heather_smith7 Reply:

     by “sucking up” (which I was partially exaggerating BTW and joking using that term but I realize that doesn’t always come across in writing) I didn’t mean “being fake”. I just meant it in the sense that you are having to coddle someone and pay special attention to how you approach them and ensure that you are framing any feedback in a way that gives excessive positive reinforcement that a non-defensive person might not necessarily require. As someone who works eight hours a day with an extremely defensive co-worker who views almost anything negatively and hates her job, I can tell you that being asked to do kind of feels like ;sucking up” in a sense because there’s a part of me that says “Why is their defensiveness my problem and why should i have to make this excessive effort to get along with someone who makes my day-to-day work environment difficult?” That’s the reactionary part of me. I realize I’m being cynical though, which is why I said that despite this i will try to make a genuine effort at diffusing the defensiveness. I don’t necessarily think that defensive people always realize they are or realize the impact that has on their surrounding environment. So we should give people the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless being real: this is hard to do in the situation.  

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  • KellyOlsakovsky

    I don’t necessarily see it as “sucking up” either – I think if we’re all honest, we can be defensive from time to time, and thinking about how we’d like to hear the same feedback would help us present things in a more appetizing (for lack of a better word at the moment) way.

    And I can relate to the defensive person. I work every day on not taking things as personally and being less defensive. You never know if this person may be doing a lot of proverbial soul-searching to improve. Your helping them may be the bit of encouragement that helps them on their own journey.

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    Heather_smith7 Reply:

     You;re right we can all be defensive. People misreading my post is making me defensive haha! I need to realize you might not mean it this way. It’s a good lesson. Being around someone CONSTANTLY defensive is hard though. It can feel like you’re “sucking up” having to make a special effort toward them just to cajole them into not being reactive.

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  • http://cfcl.com/vlb Vicki

    Sometimes they are “in the right”. Some defensive people hear harsh criticism when it’s not there because they have experienced harsh criticism when it WAS there. I’ve had managers who didn’t listen, didn’t care, and who made things up. After a while, I would expect craziness every time they had anything to say. Yes, it was defensive. But it was trained defensiveness.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Yep, that’s definitely true. Although even then, I’d say to think about whether it’s the most effective response, in terms of getting you the outcome you want. (It might be, for all I know.)

    [Reply]

    Vicki Reply:

    Oh, it’s probably the “wrong” response. Especially if this is one of “those” manager. I’m not trying to excuse the behaviour, but if you don’t understand the underlying history, it may be more difficult to understand (and fix) the behaviour. 

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  • WakefulInMelbourne

    Defensiveness is difficult on all sides. But it is often the behavior of someone who feels pushed into a corner. I am in a difficult situation of not being in the “inner circle” of communication at work and often hear of things third-hand or, worse still, get “feedback” on things indirectly (through my boss) or in a group meeting much later than the situation related to the feedback rather than closer to the time of the given situation. When responding to these things in the meeting I’ve received publicly seen eye-rolls but when complaining about that behavior have been told I’m “defensive”. I can think of no other way of dealing with these difficult situations things. My boss took the morning off two Mondays in a row, told some people, but not me (or the people who answer the phone). It seems difficult for me to take these things up with my manager without being labelled as defensive, petty, over-sensitive or just downright difficult.

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