4.5 min read

A reader asks:

“I need to talk to a staff member about some things I’d like to see her change, but in the past when I’ve given her feedback, she’s become very defensive. She gets upset and focuses on arguing that she’s not at fault—when I’m not interested in talking about fault, just in being able to talk about how we could be doing better. How do I get my message through when she’s likely to have her hackles up?”

Defensiveness is one of the most challenging responses you can get to feedback, because it can keep your staff member from really hearing what you’re saying—and thus from being able to internalize and grow from it. Too often, it results in managers hesitating to give feedback at all, which is a disservice to the staff member (who may later get taken off guard in a performance evaluation or wonder why they can’t get raises or promotions). Feedback, when done well, can lead to better outcomes for individuals and a healthier team culture.

So what do you do when a staff member resists hearing feedback—becoming upset or frustrated or automatically pushing back?

Before taking any action, recognize defensiveness for what it is: a protective mechanism in the face of a perceived threat. When feedback triggers defensiveness, it is often because the feedback brings up feelings of sadness, hurt, shame, anger, or being misunderstood.

Defensiveness might present as a response to what you’re saying in the moment, but often has very deep roots. For example, you think you’re simply offering feedback about an article the person wrote, but they could be internalizing it as reinforcement that they are not capable or that you don’t want them on your team. Knowing this doesn’t mean that you should stop offering feedback; instead, try to tap into compassion and understanding when defensiveness shows up.

Here’s the good news: because of neuroplasticity, all of us have the capacity to grow out of protective patterns that no longer serve us—including defensiveness. To support this capacity in your staff—and make future feedback conversations smoother in the process—here are some things to try:

1. Name the defensiveness and its impact.

For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed that when I give you feedback, you often seem upset and focused on why the feedback is unnecessary, or why others are to blame. Listen, I get it: I know getting critical feedback doesn’t feel good. It’s normal for it to make us feel defensive. But when that consistently comes through in blaming or arguing, it has a negative effect on both of us—it makes it harder for me to be able to share feedback, and blocks your ability to hear input focused on your growth and development in this role.”

2. Get curious about the defensiveness.

Rather than assume that you know where it’s coming from, ask questions to get beneath the surface. Consider asking, “Can you talk about what’s going on for you when I give feedback?” or “Do you have a sense of why this happens?” Get curious about what you could do differently by asking, “Is there something about the way that I’m offering feedback that’s not working for you? What could I do differently?” or “Are there ways I can offer feedback that might help you receive it—like sharing it in writing before talking about it in person?”

3. Offer some reassurance, if genuine.

Since defensiveness often stems from insecurity, you might help the person feel more secure by putting the feedback in context. For example, you might add something like, “Your overall performance is strong. So when I come to you with feedback, it’s not a message that you’re failing—it’s about how to get even stronger. But you won’t be able to grow in your job if we can’t have those conversations.” (Of course, make sure that you only say this if it’s true. If the person isn’t performing well overall, don’t mislead them. In that case, you might say something like, “These are serious issues, but I think it’s something you can work on, and I’m here to be a resource to you.”)

4. Describe what you need going forward.

For instance, you might say, “While I get that it’s not easy to receive critical feedback, I believe in your ability to take it in and grow as a result of it. I’m happy to adjust the way I deliver feedback so that it’s easier to digest, and in turn, I’m asking you to show up to feedback conversations with more openness.”
Defensiveness isn’t easy to deal with—and it can stir up our own patterns of getting angry, being passive aggressive or avoidant, or simply acquiescing (think: fight, flight, freeze, appease). To stay centered in the purpose of the feedback conversation and your compassion for the other person, remember:

  • Defensiveness isn’t a character trait, it’s a response.
  • Defensiveness probably can’t be resolved overnight, or even over a matter of weeks.
  • Because defensiveness is deeply rooted, it will likely take some excavation, which you can support by being mindful about how you deliver feedback, investing in the relationship, offering praise and encouragement where genuine, and demonstrating belief in the person’s growth.
  • The most effective managers don’t let defensiveness stop them from giving feedback.

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