November 09 – Article


Sometimes when dealing with co-workers we experience flashbacks to schoolyard squabbles. No doubt there’s been a time when you’ve had that knee-jerk reaction to defend yourself at work when you felt that you were being unfairly criticized.

Everyday at the office we hear adult conversations that reminds us of kids fighting. If you listen carefully, you can hear ways in which we typically defend ourselves by trying to justify, deflect or withdraw.

If we feel under attack, it’s only natural that we want to justify our actions exclaiming: “ But she hit me first!” When we feel guilty, it’s easy to deflect and point out: “ But all the other kids do it!” Or, when we just don’t want to deal with it, or with someone, we just withdraw and walk away saying: “I can’t hear you!”

If you’re working with someone it can be tough to confront them on their work performance without running into some of these defensive reactions. Take the example of a client who was in marketing. She got promoted and was now managing a team. A big meeting with a new client had been scheduled for after lunch. Everyone arrived prepared and on time for the meeting, except one graphic designer. After the meeting, my client asked to talk with the designer. That’s when she had a quick flashback to her daughter fighting with a playmate in the kindergarten sandbox.

My client was upset, embarrassed and tried to confront the employee about her being late. She started off by saying : “I can’t believe it! You were late again! How could you do that? It’s so irresponsible! For all I know, you were out shopping again!”

She admitted to being thrown off when the designer stopped her short saying: “Hey, wait a minute! You never start those meetings on time anyways. Besides, Susan was late last time and you never said anything to her. And… what’s all this about shopping? You and I used to go shopping at lunch together. I thought we were friends!” Then she turned and stomped out of the office.

In our coaching sessions, my client explained how she felt she had been completely taken off guard. Part of her wished she had replied: “Well, we’re certainly not friends anymore!” or “I suppose you just want me to feel guilty about getting this promotion. You probably think I shouldn’t even get this job if I can’t start meetings on time!”

It can be difficult dealing with work performance problems – especially if that person now reports to you and you are friends. The first step was to help my client separate the person from the problem. As manager, she recognized that she was responsible to both clients and staff to start meetings on time. She agreed to start the next conversation with the designer in a more supportive way, without coming across as hostile or judgmental. Finally, she wanted to assure the designer that, although they were still friends, she can’t play favourites.

For more tips on how to deal with defensiveness...

© Martha Dove and Associates